Winter the dolphin plays herself in this week’s terrific family film, “Dolphin Tale,” directed by Charles Martin Smith. While the movie’s human characters are fictional, the story of Winter is true, and Winter herself is already a star, having appeared on the Today Show, CNN, and the BBC.
Winter was only three months old when she was hurt by getting tangled in a crab trap line. She lost her tail and two vertebrae as a result of her injuries. As explained in the film, without a tail for balance and steering, a dolphin will sustain severe spinal injuries. Dr. Mike Walsh and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics created the artificial tale for Winter, and she has adapted very well. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium website explains:
How, you might ask, does one go about preparing a dolphin for a prosthetic tail? It certainly is challenging: attaching a complete fluke and joint onto an inexperienced dolphin had never been done before, but it was a challenge we felt good about! When we first started to train Winter to allow us to put the prosthetic on her body, we found Winter took to the process quite well. However, the series of approximations, or learning steps took some time. Over the course of several months, Winter learned the correct body position to be fitted for a stretchy, plastic sleeve, one that is also used for human prosthetics. Her trainers have creatively fashioned a more form-fitting version of the sleeve – it works wonders although it looks strange to say the least! The sleeve, in its original form, is ultimately used to attach the prosthetic fluke to her peduncle. After the sleeve is in place on her peduncle, the muscular part of a dolphin before the tail-flukes, we are in turn able to put the prosthetic on top of the sleeve. Once the prosthetic is in place, we check to ensure a snug and comfortable fit. We will ask Winter to swim with the prosthetic for a lap or two around the pool and re-check the fit of the tail before we start the workout! Tail flukes are the powerhouse of the dolphin. Without her prosthetic, to compensate for the absence of flukes, Winter utilizes her entire body in order to propel herself forward, moving from side-to-side like a shark. Behaviorally, our goal is to use the prosthetic as a cue or “discriminative stimulus” to swim in a normal up-and-down fashion working all muscles that surround the peduncle while still maintaining her ability to swim comfortably when the prosthetic is off. In our latest sessions, we attempt to convey the idea that calm behavior is the name of the game; persuading a playful animal to pay attention is like trying to get a pre-schooler to be studious. Our training process with the prosthetic tail is an ongoing process. As mentioned earlier, it takes many creative minds to build what is ultimately the best for the animal.
As the footage at the end of the movie shows, Winter has been an inspiration to disabled children and veterans learning to adapt to their own prostheses. Clearwater Marine Aquarium has resources for kid who want to learn more about dolphins. And you can follow Winter on Twitter: @winterdolphin