tampabay.com

Survival story needs happy ending

The technology exists to try to give Winter the dolphin a prosthetic tail. The $100,000 funding does not.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published September 3, 2006


CLEARWATER - Winter has been through a lot, but like dolphins everywhere, she keeps on smiling.

She waves and whistles and "cleans up her room," as her caretakers say, putting her toys away on request.

Not bad for a baby dolphin with no tail.

Winter, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, has lived at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium since last year.

The dolphin, then about 1 month old, was found in December near Cape Canaveral having been hopelessly tangled, all alone, in a blue crab trap for about 36 hours.

The lines were wound so tightly around her body, the blood supply to her tail flukes was stopped and they fell off after she was rescued.

The ordeal also injured part of her peduncle, or tail shaft.

When she arrived at the aquarium by ambulance, she required 24-hour-a-day care at first with volunteers supporting her body in a small pool, soothing her and feeding her through a tube. After she gained strength and weight, she was bottle-fed and her stump was rubbed once a day with an antibiotic to prevent infection.

Now, says Dana Zucker, the aquarium's chief operating officer, "she's a maniac."

Zucker has grown fond of the 110-pound, 4-foot-long dolphin, which is about 10 months old, and enjoys her pranks.

"Every morning when I come to work and greet her, she fills her mouth with water and spits it at me," she said. "So every morning by about 7:30 a.m., I smell like dolphin."

But Winter has her limitations. Without tail flukes, she can't propel herself well. She swims differently from other dolphins, going side to side, sort of like a shark, Zucker said. And she may never be able to jump 15 feet out of the water to touch a soccer ball with her snout like an able-bodied dolphin.

Unless she gets a prosthetic tail.

Bridgestone Corp. made such a device for a 500-pound female Japanese bottleneck dolphin named Fuji. It cost $95,000.

So far, the idea of enlisting Bridgestone to try fitting Winter with a similar custom-made prosthetic tail hasn't moved beyond a little preliminary discussion. But Zucker said some local folks are trying to help. One person has made a model, "but a mold has not been made yet," she said.

It would cost about $100,000 for a prosthesis. And Winter would require several of them before she reaches adulthood when she's 15.

There's no doubt Winter has become a star at the aquarium. She has her own line of merchandise, including plush stuffed toy dolphins (without tails, of course), hats, change purses, shirts and key chains.

"She's a prissy princess," Zucker said. "At one time, she would only take a bottle from my husband and not me."

And if she didn't like a certain angle at which a volunteer was holding her bottle, she refused to eat until the volunteer got it right.

Now she's off bottles and on fish.

She eats 8 pounds of herring, squid and other types of fish per day.

But her favorite thing by far is a good belly rub from her trainers.

"She knows she's adorable," volunteer Maryssa Hill said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.