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Helping creatures in Australia


WORLD Radio - Helping creatures in Australia

One man’s life mission is to help animal doctors help all God’s creatures

Photo by Amy Lewis

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes.

And for wild animals in need of medical help, necessity is everywhere. Veterinarians often have to resort to ill-fitting tools intended for humans or domestic animals. They make do, but the work is more difficult because of the lack of suitable instruments.

REICHARD: Well, it’s the mission of a man in Australia to help animal doctors help all of God’s creatures.

WORLD reporter Amy Lewis has our story.

Photo by Amy Lewis

AUDIO: [Sander, clanks, thumps, metallic]

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: Girius Antanaitis works in his parents’ converted garage. It’s more inspiring than a big box store tool department. This is where work gets done. Handcrafted hooks line the walls. Shelves display precision tools in descending sizes. A powerful microscope sits atop carefully labeled drawers. Its presence seems out of place among the metalworking and power tools.

This is where Antanaitis created a fin-coring tool to attach tracking devices to dolphins. It's where he designed and manufactured a three-foot long needle strong enough to reach the heart of a beached whale to euthanize it when it can't be saved. And it’s where he has at least a dozen projects in the works.

ANTANAITIS: One of the projects I'm working on now is an external fixation for broken turtle shells. There are various methods that are used: glues, screws…so I'm trying to make something that is fairly lightweight, adjustable, reuseable, and as stiff as possible, that can be used for small to medium sized turtles to help fix cracked shells.

Screwing a plate onto the two cracked shell pieces can preserve the turtle's life. But a turtle's organs lie just underneath the surface of its shell. Antanaitis devised a way to guarantee screws will go deep enough into the shell to hold but won't pierce through the shell. He also made the tools and the screws for the operation.

He began his career by making surgical devices for humans. But he’s always been interested in the bush and wildlife.

ANTANAITIS: Even my name, Girius, which comes from the Lithuanian "giria" I guess which means "forest." So it's always been part of me.

Six years ago, Antanaitis sent an email to Zoos Victoria to ask how he could help with wildlife. The marine unit made the first request: the 3-foot long intracardiac needle for whales.

He visited wildlife hospitals and spent hours watching surgeries and dental procedures. He noticed veterinarians struggling to use tools designed for humans and domestic animals. That experience prepared him to make surgical implements for mid-sized Australian mammals like wombats, kangaroos, and koalas.

He managed a collection of surgical kits to attach tracking devices to endangered gray nurse sharks.

ANTANAITIS: And that requires a sewing kit, a suture kit, to enclose everything. The problem with sharks are that their skin is very, very tough.

And once he made a pelvic implant for a rescued sun bear in Borneo. The surgical vets verified the placement of the implant by x-ray during the surgery.

AUDIO: That’s actually perfect. So there’s the plate that Girius built to widen the pelvis. This is now beautifully wide….

One of his current projects centers on mending broken bird wings with specially designed Kirschner wires. These are the same kind of wires or pins used in human surgeries, only much smaller—about the thickness of a 1 millimeter mechanical pencil lead. He rolls screw threads onto them.

[https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu... photo credit Girius Antanaitis]

Avian external wing fixation

Avian external wing fixation Photo by Girius Antanaitis

ANTANAITIS: I made sure they're as light as possible and the threads are, I guess, specifically machined to, to have the strongest fixation in small bird bones. And I'm talking, you know, 1-2 millimeters, sometimes smaller, depending on where the fracture is.

And that’s where the microscope comes in.

ANTANAITIS: When I'm working on something that's half a millimeter in diameter and the threads have a pitch, or the distance between the threads, which is .15 of a millimeter, I need to see that I’m precise and those threads are shaped correctly…

If the threads are too small, they’ll be too weak to enter the bird’s bone to stabilize it. Too big and pieces can break off and lodge inside his tools and ruin a whole batch of pins. Each pin takes more than a dozen steps to complete. Not counting the microscopic quality checks between each step.

ANTANAITIS: The pin sits in there. And then you basically grind once, twist it, grind again, twist it, grind again, and then, and then fourth time to get the burr off. So that gives you the three angles that you need. And each one of those steps requires calibration of tooling, and machinery. And that calibration can sometimes take an hour…

He has to use ultra-precise tools and measurements. Or else.

ANTANAITIS: So if you’re a little bit off from the very first step, all these little things just compound until you’ve got a mess at the end.

A Kirshner wire—or k-wire—inserted into a bird’s bone needs specialized tools to bend it at the right angle, so he made those too. In May, Antanaitis mailed his first wire-bender prototypes to Bonorong Wildlife Hospital in Tasmania. Within two weeks, they were being put to the test.

ABC: …Now police say it’s about a hundred birds, many of them with broken wings. The Bonorong Wildlife Rescue says that the deaths were caused by colliding with motor vehicles with a number of the birds still receiving veterinarian treatment at the moment…

Antanaitis specializes in the design and development of surgical instruments and apparatus for the health care of wildlife. He's just one man working in a converted garage. He sees satisfying results.

ANTANAITIS: It’s a lot of work, though, trust me...

Helping people who care for vulnerable creatures Down Under is worthwhile work.

ANTANAITIS: I can't say I've ever had a bad experience with any of the wildlife vets or hospitals. The people are really, really down to earth, and really, really good people. And I love that. So that really helps drive my motivation to continue specializing in this field. And again, helping as much as I, you know, physically and financially can.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis in Melbourne, Australia.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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