It was a shocking case of animal cruelty that caused outrage in Costa Rica and beyond last month. The victim? A male toucan, since nicknamed Grecia, whose beak was horribly mutilated by a group of teenagers. Grecia's story inspired people all across South America to turn their anger into action – and thanks to a social media campaign and thousands of dollars in crowdfunding the wounded bird will soon become the recipient of a 3D-printed replacement beak. 

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Image: Zoo Ave Animal Rescue Center

After being found early in January with half of its beak broken off, the yellow-throated toucan was taken to Costa Rica's Zoo Ave Animal Rescue Center, where he's been making a steady recovery. Although the extent of the beak injury means he can never be returned to the wild, Grecia is otherwise healthy and in good condition, and staff at the rescue centre want to try everything possible to give him the best quality of life in captivity – and that means restoring some of his beak function.     

Since toucans use their beaks not only for feeding and foraging for food, but also for regulating body temperature and intimidating rivals, a prosthetic beak would give Grecia the best shot at a relatively normal life. Now, three 3D-printing companies have teamed up to create one for him. "When we saw [the story] on the news, we decided to make a specialised group in order to give the rescue centre, ZooAve, an option to make the prosthetic beak using 3D technology to give 'Grecia' the toucan a second chance," says Mariela Fonseca, who is part of the team at Elementos 3D, one of the companies involved in the project. 

The team has been getting regular updates about the bird's progress from Zoo Ave's vet. "We can't do anything with the bird until he is healthy and the injury to the beak has healed," Fonseca says. 

In the meantime, they've been 3D scanning toucan beak specimens to get a good idea of their texture and geometry. "Once we are able to work with Grecia, we will be scanning his bottom beak and the stump of the broken beak," Fonseca explains. Thanks to its clever design – a thin wall of keratin encasing an interior of spongy bone – a toucan's impressively large beak is both durable and very light, so constructing a prosthetic that successfully mimics the real thing will be challenging.

The team is working on several design options to ensure the best possible fit, and testing different materials so that the end product doesn't hurt or damage Grecia's stump. "Our objective it to provide the toucan with a beak that will give it the opportunity to eat by itself, since no matter what, it will be in the rescue centre for the rest of its life." 

The designers plan to first print a few beak prototypes and practice fitting them onto a 3D-printed stump. They hope Grecia will be well enough for some initial fittings by the end of the month. But even with the best possible design, there is a chance that the toucan will not accept his new beak.

"The success of the project depends on us as well as on Grecia since he is the one responsible for accepting it and being able to work with it."

While thousands of dollars were raised to help Grecia recover, the Zoo Ave Animal Rescue Center treats and cares for many other animals like him every day. You can make a difference in their lives by donating here.

Top header image: Don Faulkner, Flickr