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Putting Her Foot Down -- Carefully

Pasadena cobbler makes an orthopedic shoe to help Gita the elephant recover from toe surgery. It's a size 19 (inches), extra wide.

October 14, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

If an elephant never forgets, then Gita will always remember Cesar Lua.

Fondly, Lua hopes.

That's because the Pasadena shoemaker intends to soon visit the 47-year-old Asian pachyderm to see if his leather-soled boot suits her as he hopes it does.

"I want to see if everything fits. I want to make sure I like what I see," Lua said. "But something that big can cause problems if they want to if you get too close."

Lua made the unusual boot after veterinarians at the Los Angeles Zoo decided protective footwear might speed up the elephant's recovery from surgery on her left front foot.

Gita underwent the operation last month to remove an infected bone from one of her non-weight-bearing toes. Healing has been slow, however, because of her weight and the thickness of her stitched-up skin.

Zoo officials called Lua after learning that his Novis Shoe Repair specialized in orthopedic shoes. The shoemaker almost hung up when the talk turned out to be about elephant footwear.

"I thought the whole thing was a joke," said the 49-year-old, who learned shoemaking from his father 31 years ago.

"Then I thought, if I can do a human shoe, then I can do an elephant shoe."

It turned out to be a really big shoe.

Since they couldn't bring Gita in for a fitting, elephant handlers photographed and measured her foot and delivered the results to Lua's Colorado Boulevard shop. It measured 19 inches across -- and nearly 4 1/2 feet around.

Lua created the base of the boot from half-inch-thick leather. He sewed together four layers of tough Cordura nylon for the uppers.

Late last week, he gave a mock-up of the boot to zoo officials to roughly check for size. They deemed it a nice fit and over the weekend Lua finished the boot. The whole job took about 12 hours.

He delivered the completed boot to the zoo Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he went to Griffith Park to check on the fit, but no attendant was available to escort him into the barn-and-corral complex where Gita is housed. So he plans to return today or Saturday to see if the shoe fits and whether the elephant should wear it.

Officials would not speculate as to how long Gita will have to wear the boot. She is arthritic, and has been at the center of protests by activists who argue that zoo elephants should be placed in large, free-range sanctuaries.

Lau predicted that the boot will last 10 months to a year, judging from the amount of walking Gita does in her compound and on morning promenades through the zoo before it opens. The regular elephant habitat has been demolished to make way for a new two-acre area. But because of the protests, officials are debating whether that facility should be built.

Zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs said Gita has accepted the shoe and readily lifts her leg when veterinarians and attendants remove the shoe so bandages can be changed.

Lua said he charged a bargain $450 for the boot. "It was entertaining to do and it was something for an elephant," he said.

But additional elephant shoes will probably cost much more, he said.

Which means that if zookeepers balk at a bigger bill and Lua decides to do the walking, they'll discover they have really big shoes to fill.

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