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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Everyone Wants an Agent--Why Not a Dog With an Artificial Leg?

January 12, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Here in L.A., where everyone is looking for an agent, why not a three-legged dog in search of Lassie-like fame?

It's not that a dog with three legs is such a rarity--plenty of quadrupeds live quite happily as tripods following the loss of a limb to trauma or disease. But few, I am certain, are as striking as Kuma, a 2-year-old white Akita who takes his constitutional each morning along the Venice boardwalk with John Weaver.

What is unique about Kuma is the prosthetic rear leg strapped to his hips, clattering against the pavement, captivating passersby as he ambles along. And, of course, his plans.

Well, not his plans exactly, but the plans of Weaver, 41, a long, lean industrial artist whose sensibilities are a quirky combination of New Age spirituality and frontier inventiveness. Weaver claims, in believe-me-or-not tones, to be a healer and to be able to hear birds talk. And when he was told that prosthetic legs for dogs are not readily available, he wasn't fazed. He simply created one.

There is more to Kuma than good looks and a peg leg. Weaver has big dreams for this dog. He is trying to start a charitable organization--the Kuma Foundation--that will do good works for disabled children. He is looking for corporate sponsorship, developing a prefabricated prosthetic for dogs and is casting about, naturally, for an agent.

Weaver's sense of Kuma's place in the universe is obvious. He concludes our meeting with this request: "When you write about Kuma, could you please refer to him as the Great White American Akita?"

*

Weaver was living in Frazier Park when he acquired the little snowball of a puppy. At 8 months, Kuma escaped from the back yard and wandered to a nearby elementary school for a visit. The dog was hit by a slow-moving cement truck. He disappeared, and Weaver feared Kuma would freeze--or bleed--to death. But the next day, Kuma, his right rear paw torn off, limped home. Weaver bundled him up and drove to West Los Angeles, where veterinary surgeon Alan Schulman operated.

"I said the standard thing to do is to amputate high up," Schulman said. "If not, you may regret it because the dog will try to walk on the stump. But (Weaver) was adamant. He said he was going to get a prosthesis for the dog."

First, Kuma had to get well. But the dog seemed to have lost his spirit. Kuma refused food, and Weaver fretted.

One day, as Weaver was making himself a grilled cheese sandwich, Kuma perked up.

"I know this is gross," Weaver said, "but he was saved by Velveeta cheese. He smelled the Velveeta and decided, 'This is life.' So I began putting it all over the house to get him to move."

Then Weaver began designing a prosthesis for Kuma. He experimented by cutting up an empty antifreeze bottle and turning it upside down as a sling. Kuma didn't know what had been strapped to his hips at first. So Weaver tied a string to Kuma's leg, and lifted it each time the dog took a step, helping him relearn the movement.

Eventually, Weaver contacted Performance Prosthetics in Santa Monica, where he and the staff came up with a high-tech "sports leg" for Kuma, incorporating a shock absorbing coil in the peg.

The company's owner, Albert Rappoport, agreed to a trade for the device--Weaver painted some signs in exchange for the leg. It could have cost as much as $5,000, Rappoport said, because of the great amount of time involved in fitting and aligning. (Legs for people cost between $5,000 and $15,000.)

"The dog is easier to work on than most people," Rappoport said. "He never complained. The only thing is, he has no insurance."

*

In October, Kuma and Weaver visited children at Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children. Recreational therapist Sandy Hill said the children loved the dog: "It definitely helps the kids to see that not only do the other kids here have problems, but animals do, too."

Weaver hopes to take Kuma on hospital visits every month and to become involved in the Special Olympics. To subsidize his plans, which have taken a toll on his work schedule, Weaver hopes to print and sell a coloring book featuring the adventures of Kuma, his accident and recovery.

Recently in Japan, Akita breeder Jackie Costello said, a movie was made about a famous Akita named Hachiko, immortalized decades ago for his enduring loyalty. Every evening, goes the story, Hachiko met his owner, a professor, at the train station. One day, the professor died at school. But Hachiko continued to meet the train until he died nine years later. To this day, said Costello, you can see statues of Hachiko in Japan.

Is Hachiko-like adulation in the cards for Kuma? Could be.

Today a peg leg, tomorrow a three-picture deal.

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