- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — The news from Indian River Lagoon was too familiar: another dolphin gravely injured because of human action.

But marine scientist Steve McCulloch immediately saw this rescue was unique. The baby bottlenose dolphin lost her tail, but perhaps her life could be saved.

Mr. McCulloch, director of dolphin and whale research at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, decided to channel his anger into a solution.

The solution for the dolphin — dubbed Winter — may be a prosthetic tail. If the logistics can be worked out, Winter’s prosthesis would be the first for a dolphin who lost her tail and the key joint that allows it to move in powerful up-and-down strokes.

“There’s never been a dolphin like her,” said Dana Zucker, chief operating officer of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is now Winter’s home.

A dolphin in Japan has a prosthesis, the first in the world, to replace a missing part of its tail.

Winter was a frail, dehydrated 3-month-old when she came to the animal rescue center in December. A fisherman found her tangled in the buoy line of a crab trap in Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral. The line tightened around her tail as she tried to swim away, strangling the blood supply to her tail flukes.

“It looked like paper,” Miss Zucker said of Winter’s tail. “Bit by bit over the weeks it just fell off.”

Winter was left with a rounded stump.

A team of more than 150 volunteers and veterinarians spent months nursing Winter back to health. Miss Zucker and her family cuddled with Winter and fed her a special mix of infant formula and pureed fish in the aquarium’s rescue pool.

Winter learned how to swim without her tail, amazing her handlers with a combination of moves that resemble an alligator’s undulations and a shark’s side-to-side tail swipes. She uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving.

Winter can’t keep up with wild dolphins that can swim up to 25 mph with strokes of their tail flukes. She will be a permanent resident at the aquarium, even if she gets a prosthetic tail.

In the tank, she swims and plays with another dolphin, rolling and diving and surfacing to demand belly rubs and fish from her caretakers.

Miss Zucker has formed a team to discuss the prospects of designing a tail for Winter. It has been consulting with a diving gear manufacturer, a tire company and the Navy, which has experience attaching items to dolphins for military research.

It’s uncharted territory. Fuji, an elderly dolphin who lives at an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, had part of his tail remaining on which to attach a prosthesis.

Winter doesn’t and veterinarians are not sure whether a prosthesis will be beneficial or harmful in the long term.

The cost of the prosthetic tail is unknown.

“All I know is Fuji’s tail cost $100,000 — and that was in 2004,” Mr. McCulloch said.

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