Poppy the Duck tries a prosthetic leg prototype created by designers at Fab Lab El Paso. (Courtesy Stick House Sanctuary)

Poppy the Duck happily paddled around in a blue kiddie pool, learning to navigate the water with a single flipper.

It was a different scenario just one month ago, when rescuers found the elderly domestic duck abandoned and disheveled at a public park. He was emaciated, his feathers were soaked, and he had a fishing line wrapped so tightly around his left flipper that it had to be amputated.

Now Poppy, also nicknamed Popcorn, is getting a leg up in life thanks to a group of animal lovers and designers at Fab Lab El Paso who are creating a new 3D-printed appendage for the aquatic bird.

Fab Lab El Paso STEM Instruction Manager Elizabeth Artalejo and STEM Instructor Alezzandra Diaz. (Claudia Lorena Silva/El Paso Matters)

“Ultimately, we want him to have some capability of walking again,” said Fab Lab STEM instructor Alezzandra Diaz. “He wants that capability, too. You can see it when he tries to force himself to stand up.”

A grassroots nonprofit organization, Fab Lab El Paso provides community access to digital fabrication tools like 3D printers and hosts education workshops on science, technology, engineering and math — also known as STEM.

Though they are still in the early stages of the process, Diaz and Fab Lab STEM Instruction Manager Elizabeth Artalejo said they plan to incorporate the project into the lab’s 3D modeling workshop for K-12 students.

“We would like the students to come down and meet Poppy once we have a design that’s fairly ready to go, just so that we can inspire the students to solve problems for these animals who can’t solve problems for themselves,” Artalejo said. “The goal is to teach them a little bit about 3D modeling, about the importance of it and then actually give them a challenge to create their version of a prosthetic for Poppy.”

Poppy, a domesticated duck, swims in his pool as part of his therapy to strengthen his remaining leg, Nov. 11, 2023. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The elderly domestic duck with a slightly green bill was found at Young Park in Las Cruces, which has a duck pond where his owners likely abandoned him. Unlike wild ducks, which typically have shorter lifespans, birds like Poppy rely on humans for food and shelter to survive and can live up to 20 years with proper care.

Poppy the Duck was found with a fishing line wrapped tightly around his left leg. Rescuers with Stick House Sanctuary amputated the leg and are working with Fab Lab El Paso to create a prosthetic flipper for him. Here, Poppy is wearing a prototype of his prosthetic. (Courtesy Stick House Sanctuary)

Julie Ito Morales, founder of the Stick House Sanctuary in El Paso’s Upper Valley, said Poppy was severely underweight with a necrotic leg when they reached out to her for help in early October.

The sanctuary, a wildlife rehabilitation and animal welfare nonprofit, focuses on saving birds and small mammals throughout the El Paso and Las Cruces area.

After arriving at the sanctuary, Poppy was rushed to surgery and had his leg amputated before the infection could spread. 

“Birds actually breathe through their bones, so once they have something like the fishing line wrapped around their leg, it cuts into their bone and causes bacteria to go through their entire respiratory system,” Ito Morales said. “That can kill them if we don’t save them soon enough.”

Even after recovering from surgery, it might be some time before Poppy gets a clean bill of health.

Besides being malnourished, the one-legged bird had a condition known as wet feather, which prevents ducks and geese from producing the oils that keep their plumage waterproof allowing them to swim.

“His feathers were so dry that if he got in the water, he would just be saturated to the bone,” Ito Morales said about Poppy when he first got to the sanctuary.

Now he splashes and swims in a kiddie pool, where he does regular water therapy to gain strength in his remaining leg and learn to preen his feathers. Ito Morales said that when Poppy got to the sanctuary, he weighed less than 2 pounds. Now he weighs closer to 7 pounds, though the average weight of a domestic duck is about 9 to 12 pounds.

“His oil gland wasn’t developed, but he’s developing it now with his grooming and being in water,” Ito Morales said. “So he looks a lot better.”

When asked why she named him Poppy, she said the name just came to her, though her students at the Children’s Garden Day School call him Popcorn.

Though Poppy still struggles to get around on land, Diaz and Artalejo have stepped in to help him stand on his own again.

Poppy, a domesticated duck, shakes off water as he swims in his pool on Nov. 11. He was found with a condition called wet feather, which means that his feathers had lost their ability to repel water. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Before even meeting Poppy, the pair began designing a prototype to see how he would do with a prosthetic leg.

“We kind of just eyeballed it,” Artalejo said. “We didn’t really have a ton of information to base those designs off of aside from doing a little bit of research about what other people have made.”

After testing it out and getting Poppy’s measurements, Diaz and Artalejo began making updates to the design, like changing the material from a hard plastic to a rubber-like polymer that more closely resembles a duck’s flipper. They also plan to design a harness to which they can attach the prosthetic inspired by “chicken diapers” used to keep their feathered companions indoors.

The instructors don’t expect the project to be a walk in the park.

Julie Ito Morales picks up Poppy, a duck whose leg was amputated after he was caught in fishing line. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“It’s hard because a duck doesn’t speak. And so if we’re trying (the prosthetic) on, we can’t just ask him, ‘Does that feel OK?’” Diaz said. “The biggest challenge is knowing if we are designing to what Poppy needs.”

Still, Diaz and Artalejo said they expect to finish Poppy’s new leg within the next few months.

Besides helping Poppy waddle again, the instructors said they hope their design will help other ducks in similar situations that are not uncommon for waterfowl living in the region. 

“If a domestic duck is found at a public pond or lake, they were either abandoned there or were hatched by two other abandoned domestic ducks,” Ito Morales said. 

Fab Lab El Paso STEM Instructor Alezzandra Diaz and STEM Instruction Manager Elizabeth Artalejo plan to design a harness inspired by chicken diapers to secure a prosthetic leg to a duck that lost its leg. (Claudia Lorena Silva/El Paso Matters)

“Domestic ducks do not fly, therefore, once they are abandoned, they are stuck there where they were left. They do not have the instincts to forage for food like wildlife. They also do not have the instincts to hide from predators.”

Over the years, the Stick House Sanctuary has taken in hundreds of domestic ducks and geese that have been abandoned or neglected by their owners.

Ito Morales said the sanctuary recently helped rescue nearly 90 ducks that were allowed to roam freely and reproduce uncontrollably on a private property.

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Rescuers from the sanctuary are also trying to capture another domestic duck roaming Ascarate Park with a fishing line wrapped around one of its legs.

In 2015, the sanctuary aided in the attempted rescue of about 200 injured and starving ducks and geese that officials said were abandoned at Ascarate Park, the El Paso Times reported. Ito Morales said they ended up rescuing 84 birds.

Though El Paso County is planning to clean up the lake at Ascarate Park where ducks and geese are often abandoned, Commissioner David Stout told El Paso Matters the project will not address the park’s waterfowl problem.

A flock of ducks, both wild and domesticated, swims at Ascarate Lake on Nov. 13, 2023. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“It’s going to be an ongoing issue until people stop leaving ducks in the park, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen,” said Stout, who represents the Ascarate Park area. “So I don’t necessarily think that this scope of work or this project is going to help or hinder. I just think it’s an issue of trying to educate the public and urge people to not throw their ducks at the park.”

As for Poppy, after he recovers, Ito Morales plans to give him a permanent home with the flock of ducks, geese and chickens living at the sanctuary.

“He’ll stay here forever because his prosthetic leg will be taken off at night and he’ll still be sleeping inside because he is compromised,” she said. “But then he’ll get his leg put back on and be added to the group.”

Claudia Silva was born and raised in El Paso and studied journalism at New Mexico State University. She's covered a number of topics, from education to arts and culture, in both Texas and New Mexico.