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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

Before he was a director, Charles Martin Smith was a teen actor who appeared as “Terry the Toad” in “American Graffiti.”  He starred in Carroll Ballard’s “Never Cry Wolf” and appeared in films like “The Untouchables” and “Starman.”  While he continues to appear as an actor, he has most recently been more active as a writer and director.  He did both for his new film, “Dolphin Tale,” opening this Friday, inspired by the true story of Winter the dolphin, who now has a prosthetic tale.   It was a delight to talk with him about breaking the first rule of show business (“don’t work with children or animals”), what he learned from George Lucas, and why the color blue is so important in this film.  He made me laugh as soon as we met because he started “directing” where we would sit.  “I often say I became a director because I like to boss people around,” he told me, “but it’s just a line.”

They say it’s always a problem to work with kids and animals, but in this movie you did both.

I might be the only filmmaker that really gravitates toward that.  I really like working with kids.  And I really like working with animals!  They’re so pure and honest and they’re never really acting, at least not in my movies.  Well, maybe Rufus [the pelican].  People sometimes try to impose things on them, a character they have in their own mind.  I think it’s much more interesting when working with an animal to find out what that real animal does and try to capture their essence and their behavior.  It’s almost a little bit of a documentary type feel.  We’ve got the real Winter playing the real Winter.

Have you worked with dolphins before?

I haven’t.  I’ve been interested in them and interested in science.  You hear all about how intelligent they are but you can’t comprehend it until you really spent time with them.  They’re certainly as bright as we are.  The first thing I did when I got involved with the movie was go to Clearwater, Florida to spend time with Winter, just to observe her behavior.  She does all kinds of interesting things.  She’s very playful; she loves toys.  She’s still young, the equivalent of a 10-year-old kid.  She loves her blue mattress and her rings.  So we put that in the movie.  I wanted to give her a special ring with something cute and iconic so I thought we’d give her a yellow duck — do you know how many different versions of rubber ducks there are?  We spent months designing this thing.  The expense we went to!  She makes that Tweety Bird sound all the time, so I said, “Put it in the movie!”

And working with kids?

I like kids.  I find them fascinating.  They give you real things.  Since I began as a child actor I understand what they’re going through and it’s great to see them blossom and learn.  I am not just a director but an acting coach and teacher on set and I love that.  I really made an effort to keep the kids real, to act like real kids.  So many movies have “movie kids.”  I didn’t want to do that.

There were no kids in the true story but when Alcon developed the project they wanted it to be kid-centered to make it more accessible.  I wanted to bring something of a magical quality to it, some wish fulfillment.  How many kids have their own dolphin?  Having the aquarium be this grand, mystical place that Hazel has complete run of and where she knows all the turtles and dolphins.  And the houseboat, so she had a fun place to live with a crows nest she could decorate herself.  And Rufus.  All to bring a slightly magical fantasy element.  I originally conceived Rufus as a seagull, but Alcon suggested a pelican — a true collaboration. 

And two 11 year olds save the day.  It would not really happen that way, probably, so that is a little bit of a fantasy, too.  But that made it even more important that the kids were grounded in reality and acted like real kids.  When Clay tells them he has to close down, Hazel runs.  Kids don’t want anyone to see them cry.  Cosi (who plays Hazel) is amazingly gifted, so good, so real, as good as any adult actor I’ve ever worked with.  She had just been in community theater, never done anything in movies or television.  And she’s a good kid; they both are.  They both come from very religious families, Christian families.  They’re such good kids.  I’ve never had a set before with no profanity, not even from the crew!

You did an amazing job of achieving a really sun-drenched look that really felt like Florida.

The wonderful cinematographer was Karl Walter Lindenlaub.  He did a lot of big sci-fi films like “Independence Day” and “Stargate” and he did a Scottish film, “Rob Roy” that showed he could do lovely things outdoors.  We talked a lot about the hot look and we certainly had hot weather.  I wanted a sort of sci-fi feeling to the movie, that first scene, under water.  We meet the pod under water and see how inquisitive Winter is.  I wanted to see the world she comes from. In a way, it’s like another planet, an alien from one planet that washes up, stranded, on another and is rescued by a boy.  I wanted to do that with the look of the film, too.  I wanted the underwater to be all blue and rich.  And then we made the neighborhood drab, and took all the blue out of it, all oranges and rusts and earth tones.  And then the aquarium is a blue building — which it really is.  And inside, that’s a set actually, he walks in and sees all the blue, watery, rich look and it’s like he’s underwater.  Then he goes back to his world and it’s all brown again.  But gradually we had some blues show up in his clothes to show how his worlds were coming together.

What did you learn from the directors you worked with as an actor?

I picked up stuff from everybody.  I worked with a lot of great directors.  George Lucas was very good in the way he directed young actors on “American Graffiti.”  He’s not generally thought of as an actor’s director.  But one of the things he did was cast good actors and get out of our way.  I learned so much about the importance of casting.  But he said, “I wrote the script; you can change any line you like.  I have an in with the writer!”  Some directors want every single word done the way it was written but that’s too stultifying to a child.  And he would ask us what was comfortable and organic and honest for us he wanted to do and he would build the scenes around that.  But the one I learned the most from was Carroll Ballard.  No one deals better with the subject of nature and man’s collision with wildlife than he does.  The way he edits, structures things, he’s always been my hero.  Every day on this movie I would think, “What would Ballard do if he were here?”

I loved the real footage at the end.

That was what I saw the very first day, seeing children with disabilities coming and being inspired by Winter.  The editor, Harvey Rosenstock, got the footage and cut it together beautifully.  It was so good we didn’t want to run it with the credits over it.  It works too well; it’s too beautiful.

I have three more copies of the new Spooky Buddies DVD!  Send me an email at and tell me your favorite Buddies movie.   Don’t forget your address!  I’ll pick three winners at random this weekend.  Good luck!

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Many thanks to author David Code for answering my questions about his new book,  Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic To Kids.

As featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CBS and Fox News, David Code is an Episcopal minister and award-winning author who draws on the latest research in neuroscience and his own study of families in more than twenty countries across five continents.

What inspired you to research and write this book?

Since I grew up with few resources, I always assumed what many others assume: Families with more money and education must be more secure, more relaxed and just plain happier. But when I was ordained as an Episcopal minister in 2003 and served two wealthy parishes near New York City, I was surprised at what I found.

The wealthy families I counseled almost seemed to suffer more. For example, a successful graphic designer had a daughter with ADHD who had been rejected by several private schools she had applied to. An entrepreneur practiced attachment-parenting with her son for years, including “babywearing” the child on her shoulder or back, and sleeping with him. But her son constantly threw tantrums, and his parents later divorced. Several successful company presidents had children who barely finished high school. Even the relatively normal families I visited often had children with allergies, asthma, learning disabilities, ADHD, or mood disorders, and many were on medication.

This made no sense to me. These kids had well-educated, well-intentioned, self-sacrificing parents who were doing what the experts told them to do: shower your kids with love and attention, help them find and pursue their inner passions, never raise your voice, protect your child at school and defend them on the playground, etc. Yet, their children weren’t turning out as expected. Why would kids with loving, dedicated, successful parents and all their advantages end up as troubled as children?  

One clue was that in many of the homes I visited, the stress was palpable and many couples had drifted apart emotionally. As I listened to parents’ kitchen-table confessions, I felt a kind of frenetic, jangly tension that was so thick in the room that one could almost see it. I assumed, like most people would, that these households were tense because their child’s problem had left everyone on edge.

Then, I read something that made me look at these families differently.

A psychiatrist named Murray Bowen had conducted an experiment in the 1950’s at the National Institute of Mental Health, observing how schizophrenic youth interacted with their families. For 18 months or more, several patients lived with their entire families in a ward where Bowen and his staff could observe and record their behaviors 24/7.

How brilliant, I thought: he observed our species the way Jane Goodall observed our chimp cousins in Tanzania!

As Bowen observed and compared the behavior of these families, a certain pattern emerged. He described “a striking emotional distance between the parents in all the families. We have called this the ’emotional divorce’…. When either parent becomes more invested in the patient than in the other parent, the psychotic process [in their child] becomes intensified.” In other words, the parents didn’t drift apart because they were too busy caring for a schizophrenic child. Rather, the drifting apart of their marriage came first, and it had somehow affected their child’s mental health.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Dr. Bowen’s quirky little experiment, but his concept of the “emotional divorce” forever changed my pastoral counseling to families. For the first time, I noticed my own assumptions and began to question them.

Like most people, I had assumed that a child’s health or behavioral problem makes a family tense, which of course it does. But now I asked myself, “What if that couple was tense even before the problem, and their tension somehow contributed to the child’s symptoms? If the old saying is true that kids pick up on everything, what if there’s some kind of mind-body connection between a parent’s anxious mind and a child’s sensitive body?”

I began to ask doctors, nurses, teachers and therapists about this mind-body connection between parent and child, and they poured out stories of how overwhelmed they feel by today’s seeming epidemic of stressed-out parents and troubled children. As I continued to read more medical studies and interview more experts, my conviction that there is a mind-body connection between a parent’s mind and a child’s body became stronger. It almost seemed as though children become barometers for their parents’ state of mind. Could it be that children are “canaries in the coal mine,” indicating when a family’s levels of stress have become toxic?

The answer is yes. Here is what every parent needs to know:

1) Kids pick up on everything, especially our stress and anxiety;
2) This happens both in the womb and throughout childhood;
3) The mind-body connection is a primal link between every parent and child;
4) This mind-body connection contributes to problems in every family—it’s just a question of degree: from colic and food allergies to asthma and autism;
5) This pattern is already epidemic in America, and it’s getting worse;
6) This is not the mother’s or father’s fault. Today’s parents are more stressed-out because our social support networks are dwindling, and we don’t realize that, as our isolation increases, it drives up our stress levels.

I feel a tremendous sense of urgency in getting my message out to parents, because every day lost is another child born with disorders that could have been reduced or even prevented. Asthma now affects 1 child in 10, as does ADHD. The national prevalence of autism almost doubled from 2002 to 2006, and now it is 1 out of 110 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But among military families, the rate is a startling 1 out of every 88 children, and in Silicon Valley the rate is roughly 1 in 77.
I want parents to see the urgent medical imperative to reduce their stress now.