STERLING, VIRGINIA - Derrick Campana became a man on a mission to make animals his life’s work after the first time he was asked to create a prosthetic for a dog who didn’t have one of his front legs. At that time he was only building artificial limbs for humans.
About 15 years ago, Campana started Animal Orthocare, now called Bionic Pets, and set out to ease the pain and suffering of disabled animals. He creates innovative prosthetics for pets without limbs, and even for wild animals. For those with damaged limbs he crafts braces to help them walk, perhaps even run again.
At Campana’s highly-specialized workshop in Sterling, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., several employees construct each device by hand. The loud sounds of sawing, drilling and scraping reverberate around the room.
Campana, who calls himself an animal orthotist, is sawing a piece of medical grade plastic in half, pouring plaster into molds, and scraping hardened plaster from a soon to be finished device to make sure it fits his client just right.
He considers his pieces a kind of art form.
“I am hand sculpting each one of these devices from scratch using plaster, and building with plastics and foams and it’s an art every step of the way,” he says.
Campana discovered a commercial pizza oven was perfect for his “art” to heat the plastics. It includes plastic sheets with colors ranging from a psychedelic theme to the American flag. They are used to cover for the prosthetic or orthotic “for a bit of fun.”
“I’ve used this pizza oven for about 16 years building about 30,000 devices for all different animals,” he says proudly.
The animals all have a story –a dog found on train tracks with a missing paw, another pup with a birth defect that made her front leg much shorter than her left, a pony whose hind leg had to be amputated.
Although most of the clients are dogs with knee problems, orthotics and prosthetics have been fashioned for a wide range of other animals, including horses, goats, cows, turtles and birds. There is even an inventive orthotic sled for a dog.
“I get such joy helping animals,” Campana says, as his workshop companion, his cute little white dog, sits by his side.
Bionic Pets is one of just 10 companies worldwide that builds custom orthotic devices for animals. A custom-made brace averages around $500, while a prosthetic can run $1000 or more. He also has “off the shelf” braces that are “more affordable” he says.
Campana has to come up with new ways to fit animals he has never treated before.
“We were able to make one of the first leg braces for a camel in the world,” he says. “Every day I get a new request and new challenge.”
And that includes his 'biggest' projects, literally, which have been elephants. His workshop contains the molds of prosthetic legs he constructed for a couple of elephants in Thailand who lost their limbs from landmine explosions.
Campana tells the story of going to Africa to fit an elephant with a life-saving leg brace.
“Jabu, the African elephant from Botswana, fell into a termite hole and he twisted his wrist really bad. I was able to make a brace to stabilize the leg so he wouldn’t get attacked and could get around.”
But Campana actually treats most animals from afar. That is because Bionic Pets can send kits to customers who create a cast of an animal’s limbs. The cast is returned to the company and used to make a custom-made orthotic or prosthetic.
“We ship these casting kits around the world,” the animal orthotist says. We get a cast in the mail, we build a device, and ship it out.”
Today, a couple of locally-based customers come into the workshop with their dogs.
“You are a very good boy,” Campana says soothingly to a black and white dog which is laying on its side getting fitted for a leg brace. Owner Lisa Bogin explains that the pup’s damaged leg couldn’t be repaired by surgery, and he would need to wear a brace to walk.
Missi Lackas arrives with her older dog which has a ruptured knee ligament. Campana designed a knee brace so the ligament could heal. “I just want him to live the last few years of his life the best he can,” Lackas says of her beloved pet.
“It still gives me goosebumps when you fit a dog, and he maybe has never taken a step in his life, or he has been injured for months, and is just starting to gain his mobility -- that joy you see, that smile, that sparkle, that wagging of their tail,” Campana says with a smile.