ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Stitches put his best hoof forward for the media. Make that his best prosthetic hoof.
Stitches, a 15-year-old Sicilian miniature donkey owned by Tracy and Steven Amonette of Botetourt County, lost part of his right rear leg about five years ago. The family could have euthanized the poor animal, but instead they decided to outfit Stitches with his own custom-made prosthetic leg.
"Look at him," Tracy Amonette said, as Stitches grazed on grass before a gaggle of reporters, photographers and television cameras Wednesday. "How could I put him down?"
The event was organized by Virginia Prosthetics in Roanoke, which designed and built the prosthetic that fits on the stub just below the donkey's knee.
Stitches was brought in a trailer to Creative Therapy Care near Hollins University in Roanoke County. The nonprofit organization, directed by Mona Sams, uses animals to treat adults and children with special needs. The hope is that Stitches might be incorporated into the program.
One of Sams' young clients, a boy named Elijiah, clearly enjoyed feeding Stitches handfuls of grass and leading him around by the reins.
Tracy Amonette got Stitches in 1997 when she lived in Colorado. She said that in his younger days, Stitches was "a brat."
"He's spoiled rotten," she said. The farm used to have an employee who fed Stitches cookies, she said.
"He used to follow her around and bray for cookies. When he heard a car, he would get sassy because he expected someone to give him a cookie."
The donkey has mellowed with age, she said. His new hoof, however, has not slowed him down.
"Animals do what they do," Amonette said. "They don't have the mental barricades that we have. If he feels like he wants to run, he's going to try."
Stitches' hoof was injured when it got stuck under a fence and later had to be amputated when the wound became infected.
One veterinarian told Tracy Amonette that the animal should be euthanized. Instead, she hired a farrier to make a leather boot that Stitches hobbled around in for a few years. This spring, veterinarians at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg suggested that the Amonettes try something different — a donkey prosthetic.
Sidney Nicely, a prosthetics maker who usually spends his days building limbs for human clients at Virginia Prosthetics, got the call. He had never made a limb for a donkey, although he built one for somebody's pet pig once.
"The donkey was a lot more cooperative than the pig," Nicely said.
Because the miniature donkey weighs only about 250 pounds — about a third of what a regular donkey weighs — Nicely was able to easily construct the prosthetic using carbon acrylic fibers, resin and padding. Nicely and Virginia Prosthetics donated the time and materials to fashion the artificial limb.
When the Amonettes' farm manager, Walter Nelson, unloaded Stitches from a trailer Wednesday, Nicely noticed that the prosthetic had gotten a little loose and it appeared that the donkey had nibbled on it. Nicely added a little extra padding inside the prosthetic to make it fit more snuggly.
Nicely said that he doesn't plan to make more animal limbs — humans keep him busy enough — but he was glad to help Stitches.
"They called me because they knew I liked animals," said Nicely, whose interest in prosthetics is deeply personal. He lost most of his right leg to cancer as an infant and has walked with the assistance of a prosthetic leg ever since.
"Because of being an amputee, I wanted to use my hands to do something that helped people," he said. And donkeys, too.
The Amonettes hope that Stitches can help people. Tracy Amonette became interested in animal-assisted therapy when her young son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder a few years ago. She said she hopes that Stitches can be useful at Creative Therapy Care.
"If doing this will help other people, that's what we're aiming for," she said. "He's a better backyard pet than a dog. He's gentle and he won't bite. What more do you need from a companion animal?"