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Injured dolphin may get a new tail

A prototype of a device being unveiled today may help Winter swim normally.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published April 20, 2007


CLEARWATER -- The tale of Winter the dolphin may be headed for a happy ending.

Today, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will unveil a prototype of a prosthetic tail fluke that could help the 18-month-old dolphin swim normally for the first time since she was a baby.

Winter lost her own tail flukes after she got entangled in a rope tied to a crab trap off Cape Canaveral in 2005. When she arrived at the Clearwater aquarium, she could barely swim.

The injury damaged not only her flukes but part of the peduncle, or tail shaft. Without her flukes, she lacks her main propulsion. She can compensate, but over time veterinarians expect problems to develop with her spinal cord.

So the aquarium is turning to Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, a division of Hanger Orthopedic Group, based in Bethesda, Md.

Amazing as it sounds, Carroll has done this sort of thing before. He has fitted dogs for artificial legs -- and an ostrich, too. He even fitted a duck for a fake beak.

"That was fun," he said.

But this is the first time he's worked with a dolphin.

Some people say "it's crazy to do this," Carroll said. "But if you have an animal and it's injured, why not nurse it back to health?"

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For Winter, Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates said he expects the device to consist of three parts: a sleeve made of silicone that will slip over Winter's stump, a joint made of titanium and a tail made of rubber.

And what will it look like?

That's top secret until a news conference today, when Carroll will show a prototype.

Even then, it will almost certainly change as Carroll adjusts it for Winter's needs.

For her initial fitting, Winter will be lifted out of her tank and will undergo a digital scan of her stump. Once the prosthetic tail is ready, there will be no surgery to bolt the device onto Winter. Carroll will use high-tech suction technology to hold it in place.

She will wear it for a few hours each day.

"Dolphins have very sensitive skin," Yates said. If she wore it for 24 hours a day, it would cause irritation.

Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics is donating the entire cost of the project, which could exceed six figures. The process could take a year or longer.

Winter, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, is lucky. Only a few other dolphins have ever received artificial fins.

Several years ago, Bridgestone Corp. engineers fashioned a partial prosthetic for a 34-year-old Japanese dolphin named Fuji who had lost part of her tail to disease.

Yates said both Bridgestone and the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, where Fuji lives, have discussed the project with him.

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Carroll typically works with humans who have lost limbs because of disease or accidents.

On Thursday, he fitted a 3-year-old girl with a new artificial leg with a working knee. The girl lost her leg at age 1 when boiling water spilled on her, burning her to the bone.

At first, Carroll said, "she would not have anything to do with it."

But when he let her feel it and handle the prosthetic, she finally accepted it. It took a kind heart and a lot of patience.

He said working with a young child is similar to working with Winter, whom he met more than a year ago.

"Winter is like a kid," Carroll said. "She's inquisitive. She wants to know what's going on."

He knows that if he tries to force an artificial device on a child or an animal, he or she will reject it -- and hate him on top of it.

To introduce the device to Winter, Carroll and the Clearwater aquarium trainers thought about tossing it into her tank and letting her play with it. But they decided they don't want her to think of it as a toy.

He will let Winter's trainers decide how best to get her used to her new tail. Once the dolphin realizes the prosthetic is not anything to be afraid of, she will probably accept it.

"She has a great personality," Carroll said. "I get the feeling she knows we're here to help."

Carroll, 48, was born and raised in Ireland. He has a bachelor's degree in gerontology and a master's in psychology. He lives in Orlando but has traveled the country for the past 30 years fitting humans and animals with artificial limbs.

"I see a lot of people come to see me in wheelchairs and then walk out the door," Carroll said. "That's very rewarding. When I go to work, it's not work. It's just another joyful day."

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