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Published on - April 26, 2007
A Winter’s tail
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Diane Mitchell, Clearwater Marine Aquarium animal care director, comforts Winter as the team readies to lift the dolphin out of her tank to perform a tail scan.
Kevin Carroll of Hanger Prosthetics holds Winter’s tail stump for the scan.
ISLAND ESTATES – When Winter was just a few months old something terrible happened to her.

Playful and curious, like all youngsters, the dolphin became entangled in a buoy line left behind by a careless crabber.

The line wrapped so tightly it cut off the blood supply to her tail and she subsequently lost it.

Fishermen rescued Winter and brought her to Steve McCulloch, director of dolphin and whale research at Florida’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution near Cape Canaveral.

Winter didn’t know it then but, although she had lost her family, she had found in McCulloch and his associates a new family and a new home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Last Friday, David Yates, CMA’s chief executive officer, and McCulloch were joined by Dr. Juli Goldstein, also of Harbor Branch; Michael Walsh of the University of Florida Marine Mammal Program, and Kevin Carroll, vice president of Prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics Inc. at the aquarium to announce that Winter will receive the world’s first full prosthetic tail.

At the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium Fuji, a 34-year-old dolphin, wears a partial prosthetic device after disease caused her to lose 75 percent of her tail fluke.

Following Friday’s announcement, the scientists, with ample cooperation from Winter, preformed a 3-dimensional scan of the dolphin’s tail or to be more precise, stub. What makes Winter’s case special is that, unlike Fuji, Winter lost her entire tail including the peduncle or joint that allows her to transfer motion into the familiar up and down sweep of the fluke. According to McCulloch, “The dolphin’s tale fluke is the most powerful swimming device Mother Nature ever designed.”

With nothing to use to anchor the prosthesis to Winter’s stub, the team had to come up with an entirely new design that would enable the artificial tail to fasten securely around Winter’s lower body. Hanger Prosthetics got involved, with their considerable experience adapting prosthetic devices to all manner of human special needs.

Diane Mitchell, CMA animal care director, and a team of aquarium staff carefully lifted Winter from the water using a kind of flexible gurney placing her gently on a padded deck near the swim tank. Winter’s lower body was then scanned using a portable laser scanner, which fed a digital image into a laptop creating a 3-dimensional image of Winter’s tail stub. The image will allow technicians to construct a model from which to create a cowling or socket to fit snugly over the animal’s backside. The fit will be so precise that once the socket is fitted over a thin sleeve of sheet gel it stays in place, held on by suction.

“Our goal is to provide a sense of realism for Winter,” Walsh said. “She is going to have to relearn how to swim.”

Winter will be limited to just a few hours a day using the prosthetic tail.

“If we can’t adapt this device for her she will eventually bend,” Walsh explained, referring to an emerging spinal deformation caused by Winter’s side to side swimming motion. “We’ve just had to MacGyver this whole solution.”

Winter will need to be fitted with three or more new prosthetic tails as she grows. The estimated cost of this first device is from $50,000 to $70,000, said McCulloch. Hanger Prosthetics is absorbing the cost.

“The staff of volunteers has really stepped up to the plate,” said Yates. “It costs the aquarium $1,200 dollars a day for Winter’s rehabilitation.”

Walsh, speaking rhetorically, asked, “Why do this? Because it can benefit other animals, sea turtles for instance ... This is going to open up possibilities for other animals, as well as humans. It’s inspirational for a special needs child to see Winter working so hard to adapt.”
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