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Emma makes the rounds in the pasture wearing her first prosthesis. She has acquired the nickname Derby Donkey for her lightning speed. (Credit: Cece Smith)
Miniature Donkey with Prosthetic Leg Living Life at Lightning Speed
by Jade Currid
Emma the miniature donkey does not know the meaning of the word, "Can’t."
Fun-loving Emma, who proudly dons costumes at times and has acquired the name of Derby Donkey for her display of lightning speed in the pasture, could teach many humans about living life to the absolute fullest.
"Her everyday hijinks keep me entertained," Emma’s owner and Auburn University Veterinary Clinic equine surgeon technician Cece Smith said. "Her personality, on a scale of one to 10, is like a 13-14. She’s over the top."
Born April 24, 2012, Emma entered the world without the ability to use her right hind leg as the result of a flexural limb deformity.
The relationship between owner Cece Smith and Emma is the epitome of love and compassion. (Credit: C. Senger Photography)
"Specifically, a flexural limb deformity is a deformity resulting in the inability of the animal to use that leg effectively," explained Emma’s surgeon Dr. Fred Caldwell, assistant professor in Equine Surgery in Large Animal Teaching Hospital at Auburn. "In the case of Emma, it resulted in her hoof being turned back on itself almost 180 degrees to where she could not bear weight on it."
At two days old and weighing in at 26 pounds, Emma arrived at the Auburn University Large Animal Clinic.
It was not feasible for Emma’s initial owners to care for her, so Cece offered to purchase her and take on her care.
When Emma came into Cece’s life, Cece knew she had to have her.
"Essentially, she’s just a vibrant little thing," Cece said. "Nothing stands in her way and nothing bothers her."
Emma’s pink tutu matches her vivacious personality. (Credit: Cece Smith)
Emma touched the hearts of those working on her case as soon as they met her.
"Personally, it’s been one of those feel-good cases that makes you really value what you do," said Caldwell.
Upon reviewing her options, Caldwell, resident Elizabeth Yorke and Cece decided on a plan to amputate Emma’s leg and fit her with a prosthesis.
"It was one of those things where the decision needed to be made pretty rapidly and we kind of just forged ahead, and it was overall just a good fit for everyone working on Emma," Caldwell said. "Everyone worked well together. We all kind of brought our own strengths to the table for the overall benefit of the patient."
The Hangar Clinic, known for creating a prosthetic tail for Winter the Dolphin, the star of the Disney movie, "Dolphin Tale," assisted with Emma’s case from the very beginning.
Immediately after being contacted, Hangar Clinic representative William Fletcher III did not waste time bringing everything needed to assess Emma’s situation and to proceed with the plan devised for Emma to live a happy, healthy life.
Emma underwent surgery performed by Caldwell and his team at only three days old.
Post amputation, she wore a cast with a metal foot incorporated into it to even out her limbs.
Emma, posing with Aubie and wearing an Auburn-themed prosthetic, is full of spirit.
Her first prosthesis enveloped her entire limb to help offload the surgical site, and she eventually was fitted with one that fit lower on the leg and enabled her to flex her hock as well as move more naturally.
Her prostheses are made of carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass. These are the same materials used in prostheses by paralympic athletes. It is expected she will have used eight or nine prostheses before she is fully grown.
Caldwell said that larger equids who have an issue not allowing them to bear weight equally on all four limbs are many times euthanized.
Because of her small stature and young age, Emma’s chances for a successful outcome were better.
Any case that comes along like this is a step closer to Emma’s procedure becoming a more viable option for larger equids, said Caldwell.
He wanted to thank everyone who stepped up to the plate and participated in her care and worked hard to save her.
"It’s been a real pleasure working on her case and working with a lot of great, talented colleagues, clinicians, technicians and students at Auburn," he said. "It’s a heartwarming story and I consider myself very fortunate to have been the person in the hospital at the time the call came in."
They all desire that her case will not only benefit other equids but humans as well.
Cece said the Hangar Clinic has used knowledge gained from working with Emma to help human patients and knowledge from working with human patients to help Emma.
It is also a hope that Emma will brighten others’ lives visiting schools, retirement homes and hospitals.
"The way children respond to her really has been amazing," Cece said. "It’s been a big part of making me glad I did this."
Cece touched upon the devotion required in caring for an animal that has had Emma’s type of procedure done.
"It’s a big commitment," she said. "It is definitely something you have to be 100 percent ready to take on and fully commit to, but, like in my case, I’ve just fallen head-over-heels in love with her and not a bit of it is a burden. It is a labor of love, I guess."
Animal caretakers are very special people and Cece is no different. The love and compassion she has shown for Emma could move mountains and the bond between equid and human is strong. Having the privilege of being Emma’s owner has been a rewarding and life enriching experience for her.
Born and reared in Fairhope, Cece grew up spending the weekends on her grandfather’s farm. Her grandfather, who still farms pecans with the help of Cece’s brother, also raised beef cattle back then.
At a young age, Cece fell in love with four-legged creatures with hooves, and her grandfather bought her a pony at age 2.
"He got tired of me waking him up at night to tell him I needed a pony, so one day a pony appeared," Cece fondly remembered.
She also rode eventing horses growing up.
Upon graduating from Auburn University, she entered her position as an equine surgery technician at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. She had managed barns and had a lot of horse experience, and Auburn supplied her with the medical know-how to do her job.
"I’ve been here a little over 3 years and I have refrained from taking home every animal I have seen and I think it was worth it, because, when the right one came along, I was able to take her," Cece said.
Cece has fulfilled a longtime wish with her ownership of Emma.
"I always wanted a female donkey," Cece said. "I just couldn’t realize she was going to be this special."
If you are interested in following Emma’s story, you can visit her on Facebook at Saving Emma and the website savingemmalou.com.
Jade Currid is a freelance writer from Auburn.