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A deep connection

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's dolphin with the prosthetic tail forges a special link with human amputees.

By TERRI BRYCE REEVES, Times Correspondent
Published October 27, 2007


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CLEARWATER - Since being rescued from a crab trap's rope and fitted with a prosthetic tail, Winter the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin has become quite the media darling.

And attendance is up at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter has lived for two years.

But there has been an unexpected development.

"We were very pleasantly surprised at the interest and the depth of connection felt by the amputee community," aquarium chief executive officer David Yates said. "We heard back from a lot of amputees saying they felt a special bond with Winter."

So on Friday, Yates announced the aquarium will provide complimentary visits to meet the dolphin to amputees who call and schedule an appointment. And to introduce the policy, the aquarium invited four individuals with artificial limbs to feed, stroke and bond with Winter.

Katrina Simpkins, an 8-year-old from Columbia City, Ind., first met Winter in July while on vacation.

It was a life-changing event, said her mother, Maria Simpkins.

The third-grader, born with a birth defect called proximal femoral focal deficiency, wears a prosthetic leg that connects to her knee. Now she has a special friend she can relate to.

"She's happier," Simpkins said. "She knows she is rare and so is the dolphin."

Katrina has actively pursued the friendship, e-mailing Winter about once a week. She keeps up with Winter's progress online and through phone calls to the aquarium.

"She's my best friend because she has a helper tail and I have a helper leg," she said.

As Katrina knelt down next to Winter's tank, the dolphin waggled on over for a belly rub and a few nibbles of herring.

Winter lost her tail and three vertebrae as an infant. She was found more than two years ago off Cape Canaveral, deserted by her mother and tangled in a rope attached to a crab trap. Veterinarians did not think she would survive.

Without the prosthetic, the dolphin swims back and forth like a shark or an alligator. It's a movement that could cause spinal damage as dolphins normally move their flukes up and down.

To solve the problem, Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. of Bethesda, Md., designed a variety of sleeves and tails for Winter's stump. And as the dolphin - now 185 pounds - grows, new prototypes will be designed.

"The tail will never be finished," Carroll said. "Her body and abilities will keep changing."

At this point, Winter is still in training and hasn't learned to use the artificial appendage efficiently. But her caretakers hope that someday she'll zoom around at 15 or 20 mph, just like her playmates.

"What we're learning by working with Winter has the potential to help humans," Carroll said.

Retired Army Lt. Melissa Stockwell, 27, of Chicago lost her left leg to a roadside bomb in 2004. She had heard about Winter in the news and was eager to meet her on this day.

"There is an automatic bond when you meet others with a loss," she said. "It's amazing what they can do now to help both humans and animals."

She said she is fortunate to have several different legs for various uses, including competing in triathlons.

Alex Miller, 9, of Sarasota was born with a nonfunctional right leg. On this day, he was sporting his brand-new running leg.

He said he hopes Winter will be able to get a bigger, faster tail one day.

"I want them to design something for Winter so she can keep up with her friends," he said.

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

[Last modified October 26, 2007, 21:17:39]


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