Replacing Winter's tail

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is seeking a prosthetic tail for a youngster that lost hers to a crab trap.

Published January 7, 2006

CLEARWATER - By the time rescuers found the 3-month-old dolphin, she had spent maybe 36 hours entangled in a blue crab trap, the line acting like a tourniquet on her tail.

With the flow of blood cut off, the young dolphin's damaged tail flukes fell off after she was freed on Dec. 10.

In open water, not having a tail could lead to a crippling spine injury or worse. But vets and volunteers have nursed the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, named Winter, and now want to give her something truly rare.

A prosthetic tail.

The artificial tail is seen as a remedy to one of the worst dolphin injuries that veterinarian Janine Cianciolo has seen.

"This is the first dolphin that's made it with having that much gone," said Cianciolo, senior veterinarian and director of animal care at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Creating a prosthetic tail for a dolphin would be more involved than for a human because it would be constantly immersed in saltwater.

At this point, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is putting out feelers to universities, but the dolphin's tail still needs to heal before a prothesis could be designed or attached.

"She'll need several throughout her life as she grows," said Cianciolo, who estimates it will cost about $100,000 for the prosthetic tail.

Cianciolo has heard of only two dolphins that have had prosthetic tails made to help them swim. One was in Hawaii. The other was a 500-pound dolphin in Japan named Fuji. The female bottleneck was staying at a Japanese aquarium when she developed a mysterious disease that ate away at her tail fins.

She received a prosthetic tail fin in 2004 made by Bridgestone Corp., using rubber usually used for Formula One race car tires. It weighed about 5 pounds, cost about $95,000 and is kept in one piece with bolts.

With the prosthesis, Fuji can jump and swim like other dolphins.

Dan MacDonald, a U.S.-based Bridgestone spokesman, could not immediately say Friday if his company could help Winter. Cianciolo said Winter's case is more severe than Fuji's.

Winter was entangled in trap near Cape Canaveral and was brought by ambulance Dec. 10 from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the Hubbs Institute of Orlando. No one else would accept her.

The injury damaged not only her flukes but also part of the peduncle, or tail shaft.

Without her tail flukes, Winter lacks her main propulsion, said Cianciolo. She moves her stump around, somewhat compensating, going side to side.

"Over time the side to side will cause problems with her spinal cord," said Cianciolo, who has taken only two days off work since Winter took up residency.

Since Winter came to Clearwater, a volunteer has been in her 7,000-gallon pool at all times because she is used to being with her mother and needs body contact.

Winter had ulcers on her mouth and tongue from the trap's ropes and was so injured and dehydrated that vets and volunteers could only touch the tips of her pectoral fins. The milk they tried to nurse her with would pour from the sides of her mouth, which only had buds of teeth. They had to feed her by tube.

At first she could not swim and they literally had to support her body. After a few days she regained strength to swim.

"It was a long shot a month ago," said Cianciolo, who worried constantly about infection.

Now, however, Winter weighs 711/2 pounds and splashes happily with volunteer Vivie Dimmitt. She perks up when volunteer Debbie Flynn climbs into the pool, hoping she will bear a blend of water, safflower oil, vitamins and herring. The herring concoction has cost the aquarium $10,000 in the three weeks Winter has been there.

Her routine includes getting her "stub" scrubbed once a day with an antibiotic, being weighed and being fed every three hours.

With continued progress, Winter may be able to be fitted for a prosthesis.

"It's a new medical challenge," Cianciolo said Friday, but she is optimistic. "Certainly the technology is out there. It's a matter of funding."

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.