The Inventor of the Canine Wheelchair
90-year-old retired vet gives ailing dogs a spring in their step

In a small white warehouse in a tiny Chesapeake Bay town shaped like an ear, 90-year-old Lincoln Parkes spends his days making wheelchairs for dogs and other animals. Parkes first invented and patented a cart that allows disabled animals to walk in the early 1960s, launching a lifelong love affair with the craft. He opened a wheelchair shop, K-9 Carts, around the same time and kept it running as a side business throughout his decades-long career as a veterinary surgeon. After performing more than 3,000 spine surgeries, Parkes retired in 1991 and moved to Oxford, a colonial port-turned-vacation spot in Maryland.

Parkes's retirement didn't mean he stopped working - instead, he focused all his attention on his lifelong passion. He set up a workshop two blocks from his home and began churning out wheelchairs. "I like to give animals a better life," Parkes said. "If you put them in a cart when they can't get around, it gives them mobility so they can use their front legs, and their spirit just goes - they're like kids once they got their independence."

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Parkes bent over a table and fiddled with tiny rubber leg straps attached to a wheelchair destined for a Welsh corgi. This is how he whiles away every weekday from roughly 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., hand-crafting several hundred made-to-order carts each year. He's still designing, too, still trying to perfect the pet wheelchair. Retired veterinarian colleagues marvel that the man - known in the field for his invention and for his empathy toward disabled animals - is still working and innovating. Clients say Parkes's wheelchairs, which run from $300 to upward of $800, offer extra years of life to sick pets.

Llyr, a corgi, trying out his new wheelchair for the first time. "It made a dramatic difference - the moment Llyr was put into that cart, he took off running," said Amy Deisher, who purchased a cart for her corgi after he contracted a degenerative disease (DM) that slowly paralyzed the dog. "Prior to going into the cart he was dragging his hind end, he wouldn't do his normal activities.... It made me very happy, that he could do what he used to do." (Photo: Amy Deisher)

Parkes had joined the Navy Air Corps roughly two years before the close of World War II, at the age of 17, and spent the tail end of the war stealing and analyzing enemy equipment. Afterward, feeling somewhat aimless, Parkes and a friend roamed the United States for two years, paying their way by working odd jobs. They often tended animals on ranches.

His time as a ranch hand had convinced him that he wanted to work with animals. So, planning to learn animal husbandry and become a rancher, he went back to school: first prep school; then veterinary college at Colorado State University (where the powder snow was excellent for skiing); then an internship; and, later, graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Somewhere along the way, he nixed ranches and chose veterinary surgery.

In the early 1960s, Parkes began working and researching at the Animal Medical Center, a nonprofit animal hospital in New York City. He quickly noticed that many owners of the dogs he operated on had the same demand.

"The dogs that I'd done surgery for didn't all walk afterward," Parkes said. "And the owners said, 'Look, I'm not going to put my dog down, will you give something for him so he can get around?' And so I said, 'Sure.' "

He seized on the idea, and K-9 Carts was born. Parkes disparages his original design now - the squat, four-wheeled cart with its steel framework is too heavy - but it was revolutionary at the time. The device served both the patients and their owners very well.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, K-9 Carts had almost no competitors, according to Parkes. The company sold thousands of wheelchairs every year to people all around the country. Despite his company's success, Parkes kept tweaking the design of the wheelchair, always seeking to make it lighter, better balanced and easier to adjust. He ultimately filed and earned three different patents for three different carts over the course of four decades.

But trouble struck shortly after Parkes retired. He and his wife, Barbara, divorced in the early 1990s. The split sundered K-9 Carts, too. They struck a deal: She would sell wheelchairs on the West Coast (she was living in Montana at the time), and he would move to Maryland and sell wheelchairs on the East Coast. Her company would be called K-9 Carts West - though she later dropped the "West" - and his would be called K-9 Carts East, as it still is.

As the years went by, Parkes not only competed with his wife's business but K-9 Carts East was facing five or six other serious competitors.

Today sales are down to a few hundred carts per year, and Parkes's reach is no longer national; he mostly sells to locals now. Once, he could pay workers to make the wheelchairs while he focused on creating new prototypes; now, he is the one putting together carts, often taking days to fill a single order as he stitches together plastic sheeting and aluminum pipes.

But he is not discouraged. He's working on a new and better version of the wheelchair that he thinks will sell well.

Abstracted from The Washington Post
Photos: Hannah Natanson
9 August 2018