That 3-year-old Andre is even alive is a miracle. That he can do one of his favorite things —chase after a tennis ball — shows what a little silicone and a lot of love can do.
A sweet-natured, jet-black Alsatian-Rottweiler mix, Andre survived a nightmare in the woods near his home in Wasilla, Alaska, last May. He went for a walk on his own and stepped into an illegal hunting trap, which snapped around his left front and back legs. Hopelessly scared and desperate, Andre did what he had to do to stay alive — he chewed through both paws to free himself. A hiker followed a trail of blood and found Andre beneath an overturned camper trailer, hiding, frightened, near death.
That’s when the Alaska Dog and Puppy Rescue squad took over. Andre, who was found wearing a collar, was never claimed by his owner, even though media coverage of the plucky pup rivaled that of fellow-Wasillan Sarah Palin, who was picked to run for Vice President around the same time. Rescue staffers kept Andre and nursed him back to health, to the point where he could hop around on his two right legs. But he could only stay upright for a few hops before having to lie down.
A dog like Andre generally has few options — he can spend the rest of his life indoors, on his side, or he can be put down. But Andre got lucky — Alaska Rescue’s Karen McNaught placed a call to Martin Kauffman. Along with his wife, Amy, Kauffman runs OrthoPets in Denver, Colo., one of the few companies that makes prosthetic limbs for animals. "She said she read about us online and she asked if we could help Andre," Kauffman tells PEOPLEPets.com. "I said, 'You bet we can.' "
Kauffman had Andre flown down to Denver and got right to work. He examined Andre’s damaged limbs, which, because they were self-amputated, had uneven bits of bone and skin. "That was the biggest challenge," says Kauffman. "We had bony edges and not a lot of skin closure, a lot of things that could set us up for potential discomfort. We wanted to be able to fit him with new legs without having to put him through more surgery."
Kauffman created two silicon, hypoallergenic, foam-lined prosthetics. "The goal was to make them comfortable and safe and allow Andre to biometrically return to normal," he says. Kauffman slipped the prosthetics onto Andre’s damaged limbs and fastened them with Velcro straps—"sort of like putting on a ski boot in reverse," he explains. "You slip it on and lock it in place. Andre could not pull his legs out of it."
Andre got right up, but immediately resumed hopping on his two good legs. But when Kauffman put him on a leash and slowly walked him, Andre began to get the hang of it. "He was stumbling a bit, he wasn’t sure where the ground was. He was like a person walking on stilts for the first time."
Bit by bit, Kauffman increased the length of time Andre spent with his new legs on. Andre got a little bit more confident with each step, but he still didn’t seem too sure of himself. Then, on just Day Two, one of Kauffman’s neighbors showed up at his Denver office with his pet lab. The neighbor threw a tennis ball on the front lawn, and his lab happily chased after it.
And then, just like that, so did Andre.
"He just took off," says Kauffman. "He ran on all four legs. He didn’t think about it, he just let nature take over. He saw the ball, and he was gone. It was a very emotional moment."
Kauffman also arranged for a friend to adopt Andre. "I had to find someone who could keep Andre with him all day long, because he hates being alone. And this guy can." Andre wears his silicon legs all day long, then sleeps without them. He’ll need to change the inner linings once a year, but the shells should last for at least five years. Kauffman, who created the prosthetics for free, says each one normally costs around $700 — about one/tenth of what a prosthetic for a human costs.
Kauffman, who calls Andre "a fun-loving knucklehead," says that Andre’s story has touched a lot of people — and led to real changes. Because of Andre, legislators in Alaska passed a new law restricting and regulating hunting traps. What’s more, "Andre shows that you don’t have to put a dog down even if something horrible happens to him and he loses a limb or two limbs. There’s a lot of things that are possible now that will allow dogs like Andre to lead normal lives."
Even so, Kauffman can’t quite believe how quickly Andre adapted to his new life, given the horror of his ordeal. "I marvel at how he could overcome such tremendous emotional and physical pain and just be normal again," he says. "He is awesome."