Phoenix (AZ Central) -- The 7-foot-long alligator floated motionless in the water, waiting for the prey to get just a few feet closer.
But if this had been a swamp, rather than a swimming pool in north
Scottsdale, any prey would surely have noticed the bright orange water
wing wrapped around the gator's tail, preventing him from sinking.
The alligator is Mr. Stubbs, who is part science project, part human
endeavor, and much more. He's also half-gator, half-rubber.
11-year-old crocodilian now sports a 3-foot-long prosthetic tail,
attached firmly with nylon straps. It replaces the original, which was
bitten off more than eight years ago. As far as anyone at the Phoenix
Herpetological Society knows, Mr. Stubbs is the first alligator to
tolerate, if not sport, a prosthesis.
It will take months, however, before Mr. Stubbs learns how to
properly use the tail. For now, handlers are happy with smaller
"The fact he doesn't try to bite it (the tail) is a good sign," said
Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society. "Learning
how to use it is going to take a lot of training."
The months-long project was overseen by someone well-versed in
anatomy. Marc Jacofsky is executive vice president of research and
development at the CORE Institute in Phoenix, which specializes in
orthopedic care - for humans.
While visiting the Herpetological Society, Jacofsky was asked if it would be possible to make an artificial tail for Mr. Stubbs.
"I looked and saw there was enough there that we could probably do
something that wouldn't involve surgery," Jacofsky said. "I also liked
the idea because it would improve his life. Our motto at the CORE
Institute is 'Keep life in motion,' and this certainly fit in with that.
I was on board."
Jacofsky estimated the project has cost the Core Institute about $6,000 in donated labor and materials.
Mr. Stubbs had been a project since shortly after arriving at the
center in May 2005. The then-3-year-old gator was one of 32 confiscated
from the back of a truck pulled over near Casa Grande, Johnson said.
Officers called in the Arizona Game and Fish Department as soon as the
cargo made its presence known.
"Scared the heck out of the officer," Johnson said. "No one expects to find alligators when you look into the back of a truck."
Game and Fish called the herpetological center, which takes in as
many as 20 alligators a year confiscated in Arizona, Johnson said.
When he saw the gator missing a tail - without it he was only about
20 inches long - Johnson needed a few minutes to come up with a name.
X-rays later would reveal crushed vertebrae where Mr. Stubbs' spine came
to an abrupt end, proof the tail was bitten off. It likely was done by
another alligator, Johnson said.
The center tries to re-home its alligators in zoos or wildlife
refuges, but it was clear Mr. Stubbs wasn't going anywhere. Johnson and
other handlers spent six months teaching him to paddle with his front
feet, since the gator was missing his usual source of propulsion.
But Johnson wondered if they couldn't do something more. It was about
18months ago when he pitched the idea of an artificial tail to
Jacofsky, and a plan was set in motion.
And it just so happened that someone who would become a valuable
member of Team Stubbs was already at the center, studying alligator and
Justin Georgi was intrigued. The assistant professor in the
department of anatomy at Midwestern University in Glendale volunteered
to analyze Mr. Stubbs and determine exactly what was needed to make the
"I was in a unique position to help out in a one-of-a-kind project," Georgi said. He also liked the humane implications.
"I knew we could give him a better quality of life," he said. "With a
tail, he could walk and swim more naturally, reducing wear and tear on
Using cameras and a computer, Georgi studied Mr. Stubbs for weeks. At
times he would attach reflective dots to the gator, whose jaws were
secured with electrical tape before each session. The dots would form a
3-D computer model, allowing Georgi to see exactly how Mr. Stubbs got
Georgi used the research to devise the tail's specifications. It had
to be buoyant, and weigh just seven to nine pounds. It also had to be
flexible, so when Mr. Stubbs wiggled his rear stump, the tail would
swing to propel him forward.
Sarah Jarvis took it from there. The CORE Institute research
associate would craft the tail from silicone rubber. She had seen the
movie "Dolphin Tale," based on efforts to fit a dolphin with an
artificial tail. "The fact I could do the same thing for an alligator, I
thought, 'How cool is that?'" she said. "That I would be the one to
build it was just amazing."
First, she needed a mold of a real tail. Georgi just happened to have
the perfect gator carcass in his lab. After making a mold, the tail was
dissected to analyze such things as density and weight distribution.
With the mold and findings in hand, Jarvis used Body Double and
Dragon Skin -two types of silicone rubber -to create a tail. It included
a sheath that would fit over Mr. Stubbs' stub.
Jarvis painted the prosthetic so the gator would not have to go
around with a translucent tail. She tried to match nature's colors,
using green, black, brown and red. It came out a little grayish for her
tastes, but was close enough.
The first fitting in January did not go as well as hoped, Jarvis
said. The rubber straps had too much give and tended to dig into the
Still, the tail had an immediate impact. Without it, Mr. Stubbs
tended to pick up his hind end and walk in circles. With its added
weight in back, he walked in a straight line.
The team also was pleased that Mr. Stubbs accepted a rubber limb trailing him.
"The big question when we attached it was, what would he do?" Jarvis
said. "Did he think it was attacking him? Was he going to bite it? But
once we had it on, he didn't react at all."
Nylon straps were substituted and other minor adjustments were made. Soon, Mr. Stubbs showed no signs of irritation.
A larger test loomed - how would it do in water? Not so well, at first.
The tail took on water, sinking and taking the 35-pound Mr. Stubbs
with it. So the workers added filler for a better fit and cut a small
drainage hole halfway down the tail.
The more complex problem was Mr. Stubbs himself. The alligator had no
idea how to swim with an artificial tail, often going into a barrel
roll as he attempted to balance.
Johnson, who taught the gator to dog paddle, now must train Mr. Stubbs to swim like an alligator.
"I have to erase everything I've taught him," Johnson said. "He needs to know he has a tail and what to do with it."
The tail's biggest test was Wednesday, when the team gathered at the
Phoenix Herpetological Society in north Scottsdale to see how Mr. Stubbs
would do in the deep, treacherous waters of a backyard swimming pool.
Before he was let loose, a $3 water wing was attached to Mr. Stubbs'
tail, since an abbreviated test earlier had him struggling to stay
This time, Mr. Stubbs floated easily. That was a good sign.
"It's all about balance at this point," Johnson said. "The fact he can float with no trouble is a big step."
The crew wanted to see the gator swim, so Johnson poked him with the
bristled end of a pool broom. Mr. Stubbs briefly wriggled, the tail
waving behind him. It was the moment everyone had been hoping for.
But this tale is just beginning. Mr. Stubbs struggled with balance at
times, and the water wing played a large role in the gator's stability.
Everyone agreed it was a good start.
Johnson said it will be three to six months of training before Mr.
Stubbs relearns what it's like to swim like an alligator. But with as
many as 60 or 70years ahead for Mr. Stubbs, based on a gator's expected
life span, Johnson has plenty of time. More tails will need to be
crafted in the future, because alligators grow throughout their
"He is going to have a long and happy life here," Johnson said.
"Right now I want to get him to the point where he doesn't need that
floaty anymore. That way the other gators will stop making fun of him."