Man’s Best Friend, Man-Made Legs

Acacia Munoz, Staff Reporter

Texas A&M University-Commerce Department of Art gives students credit towards their degree while building prosthetic legs – in the form of wheel carts – for handicapped animals.

Josephine Durkin, Associate Professor of Art, has developed a new class, course number ART 497, called E.A.S.T. Studio: Prosthetics for Handicapped Dogs. E.A.S.T. stands for Empathy Art Science and Technology and is being taught for the first time this semester. She teaches class each fall, and it is open to all majors. Durkin, who regularly teaches 3D design, sculpture and graduate courses, developed the class as a way to teach empathy and kindness towards animals, while simultaneously teaching design, engineering and woodshop skills. In this course, students learn technical and real-world problem-solving skills, while greatly improving the quality of life for disabled animals. Students design and construct wheel carts to enable cats and dogs to become comfortably, and safely mobile – so they can fully enjoy their life despite their physical challenges.

A couple semesters ago, Durkin started to incorporate projects in her 3D Design class that fueled animal kindness through technical skill building. Students were very engaged in these projects, and so she wanted to create an entire course dedicated to teaching empathy through art and design. She realized that, between classes, jobs, homework and other activities, students have schedules that make it difficult for them to volunteer, and apply their conceptual and technical skills to help tackle and solve real-world problems. E.A.S.T. classes focus on creative problem solving, as they apply to real-world problems, for the purpose of positive change.

Students learn to shop, design, and obtain engineering skills while building rolling carts for disabled dogs and cats.

A wheel cart purchased online can cost hundreds of dollars, but Durkin’s goal is to make them for $60 or less.

“We want to make them function for the animals, but also draw attention to encourage awareness and kindness,” Durkin said. “The more care we put into these carts, the more others will care about disabled animals. Students are engineering these vehicles to help animals, but they are also creating vehicles for positive, social, real-world change.”

The class is currently working in three different groups where each is building a wheel cart for a disabled animal. Every student takes part in this project. They use their research skills to learn more about the disability of the animal they are helping so that the wheel cart is best suited for their needs.

One of these animals is Callalily, nicknamed Cally. She suffers from wobbly kitten syndrome, a disorder where the cerebellum of the brain has not fully formed, which causes her not to walk properly. Her group recently tested their second wheel cart prototype and the entire class saw Callalily walk on her own.

“She is doing very well,” Durkin said. “Compared to the first prototype test, this one is much better.”

Merissa Balak, who takes part in Callalily’s group, immediately began to make improvements on the harness that fastens Callalily to the cart.

“I’m a pre-vet so I have a love for animals,” Balak said.

Roger, a 13-year-old German shepherd, suffers from old age, severe arthritis, as well as degenerative myelopathy, which causes him a lot of pain, making it difficult for him to walk.

“His right front leg is the only leg working for him,” Durkin said. “He is currently taking anti-pain medication, but the wheel cart is very helpful.”

He also had the chance to test out his prototype. Everything was going well until his group witnesses him fall to the side. Now they are determined to make new improvements to help Roger become mobile.

“Even though the back legs touch the cart, it needs to be elevated and widened,” Durkin said.

Lucy, a mixed German Shepherd and Golden Lab, is the third disabled animal being helped by the class. She lost her front left leg after being hit by a car last February.

“We looked up wheel carts for dogs online to get an idea of what it should look like but couldn’t find any with front wheels since Lucy is missing her left front leg,” Amy Faith, who takes part of Lucy’s group said. “Josephine then gave us some really helpful information that helped us get started.”

Faith gives her teammate, Dereck Walker, credit for the design but he claims everyone in the group helped.

“We had a few problems getting the wheels to run in the beginning but we made some adjustments and got it to work,” Faith said. “We tried to think of every possible thing to help her.”

Durkin wants these wheel carts to be a work of art so they can be interesting, and show love to the animals. She expects the final designs of each team wheel cart to incorporate color and make use of smart, appealing design.

“The key is to create a moving sculpture,” Durkin said. “Be inspired by whatever…to have the most desirable cart out there but most importantly have fun. We can make a wheel cart better than the ones online. Art, science, and technology can be used for solving real-world problems.”

The class’ wheel carts will make their debut in Dallas on December 3rd, as part of a group show at Gray Matters Gallery called Altered Works.