Winter’s 16 summers helped to bring a new dawn for captive wildlife
CLEARWATER, Florida––Winter, 16, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin who spent almost her entire life at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium after losing her tail to a blue crab trap at just two months of age, died on November 11, 2021 from a twisted intestine.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium staff and media covering Winter’s death mentioned many contributions she made to prosthesis research and treatment, including to help human victims of amputation.
The official announcements and mainstream media coverage, however, neglected to mention Winter’s part in transforming views of why, how, and which marine mammals might be ethically kept in captivity.
Most popular dolphin in captivity
Winter’s highly unusual capture and life at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium might be said to have made the strongest of cases for keeping in captivity only those animals who cannot be returned to the wild.
Despite the severity of her injury, which kept Winter from performing spectacular leaps and other stunts commonly performed at other aquariums in dolphin and orca shows, Winter became by far the best-known and most popular dolphin in captivity.
Winter’s life may have helped to point the way toward a time in which zoos and marine mammal parks will be rehabilitation facilities and long-term care centers for animals in genuine need of help, not prisons for healthy specimens kept only for exhibition and breeding.
Without ever jumping through a hoop or sending a trainer soaring with a “rocket hop,” Winter boosted Clearwater Marine Aquarium attendance almost immediately.
Eventually Winter brought the aquarium more than quadruple the attendance and six times the revenue per year that the 50-year-old facility had ever enjoyed before her arrival in 2005.
“Aquarium was about ready to go belly-up”
When Winter came, “The nonprofit public aquarium was about ready to go belly-up,” assessed Mitch Stacy of Associated Press, but at her death, Stacy added, “An $80 million expansion of the facility was recently completed, including a 1.5 million-gallon new dolphin complex, to handle the crowds that have descended on the aquarium since Dolphin Tale,” the first of two hit films about Winter, “was released a decade ago,” in 2011.
The heavily fictionalized film, starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Freeman and Nathan Gamble, “was largely shot at the Clearwater aquarium and surrounding Tampa Bay locations,” Stacy recalled. “It put the non-profit aquarium on the map internationally.”
Said Clearwater Marine Aquarium president James “Buddy” Powell, “This place wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Winter,” who besides having a compelling story was also an exceptionally gregarious little dolphin.
Winter & Hope
A sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, was released in 2014, starring Winter and Hope, Winter’s companion of 11 years, who was found by a fisherman in shallow water at the edge of the Indian River Lagoon trying to nurse from her dead mother.
Hope arrived at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium five years plus a day after Winter.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium also has a 30-year-old female Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, P.J., rescued in 2018, who suffers from hearing and vision loss, worn teeth, and arthritis, and two male Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Nicholas, rescued as a calf in 2002, and Hemingway, found stranded at Fiesta Key in 2019.
The two males, and two male rough-toothed dolphins, Rex and Rudolph, rescued in 2019 from strandings on Sanabel and St. George Island, are kept separately from the females.
“Not an operable condition”
Aquarium staff announced first that Winter died in the arms of her caregivers while being prepared for a “procedure,” but veterinarian Shelly Marquardt clarified to Tim Wronka of Baynews 9 that, “Given the location of where this was, ultimately it was not an operable condition. There was nothing that could be done. We made her as comfortable as possible.”
Added Wronka, “Winter’s condition was determined to be critical” the day before her death.
“She was receiving treatment from some of the top veterinary specialists in the nation who were exploring all avenues to save her life,” Wronka said.
Elaborated a Fox 13 news staff report, “Marquardt said Winter did sustain changes to her spine,” as result of her tail loss, “and does not know if the loss of her tail factored into her intestinal torsion. She said there are other tests pending from the necropsy, and while the results will be back in several weeks, she stressed that it may not be clear what impact, if any, her spinal changes had on her intestinal condition.”
Caregivers “noticed a week earlier that Winter was acting abnormally and not eating,” summarized Curt Anderson of Associated Press.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium president James “Buddy” Powell told media, Anderson added, that “Winter previously experienced intestinal issues — not uncommon among dolphins,” but previously she had responded to treatment.
Powell said there was no evidence that Winter had contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has become increasingly common among zoo animals around the world.
Only hours after Winter’s death, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska announced the deaths of three snow leopards––Rainey, Everest, and Makalu––from what the zoo described as “COVID-19 complications.”
COVID-19 is not known to occur in marine mammals, but was found to have infected several Asian small-clawed otters at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta in April 2021, prompting the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, to vaccinate the eight California sea otters kept there. Four of the sea otters are permanent residents, while the other four were rescued as stranded and abandoned pups, probably orphaned, who may eventually be returned to the wild.
COVID-19, in any event, produces different symptoms than were observed in Winter.
Arrived frail & dehydrated
“Winter was a frail, dehydrated 3-month-old when she came to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium hospital in December 2005,” recounted Phil Davis of Associated Press in January 2006.
“A fisherman found her tangled in the buoy line of a crab trap in Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral,” Davis wrote. “Marine biologists and crab fisherman had worked out an easy fix years ago to keep dolphins from eating bait out of crab traps, but this trap didn’t have it. Winter got tangled in the buoy line. It tightened around her tail as she frantically tried to swim away, strangling the blood supply to her tail flukes.”
Personnel from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and other Southeast Standing Network partner organizations rescued Winter, but what to do with her was an open question.
Taking Winter to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was an obvious first step.
Begun as a marine biology learning center, making use of the waterfront tanks at a former sewage treatment plant, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is among the few dolphinariums in the world that was never primarily an entertainment facility.
The first resident dolphin, Sunset Sam, arrived in 1984, reportedly the first bottlenose dolphin in Florida to survive having been fully beached.
Found alongside Old Tampa Bay, Sunset Sam suffered from chronic liver issues, and was not deemed a viable candidate for release, though dolphin freedom advocate Mary Mosely led an unsuccessful multi-year campaign seeking to return him to the wild.
In response, the aquarium eventually doubled the size of Sunset Sam’s tank.
Learning to paint with acrylics, Sunset Sam produced art that helped to fund the Clearwater Marine Aquarium operations and stranding rescue program. He died on December 4, 2001, at 21 years old.
This was more than the estimated fifteen-to-sixteen-year estimated average lifespan of an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, which includes high infant and adolescent mortality, but was well short of the forty-to-sixty-year estimated maximum age of the species.
“There has never been a dolphin like her”
Winter was a much more complicated case, becoming more difficult by the day as bits of her tail fell off, eventually leaving her with just a rounded stump.
“There has never been a dolphin like her. It’s a learning experience for all of us,” Clearwater Marine Aquarium chief operating officer Dana Zucker told Phil Davis.
Summarized Davis, “A team of more than 150 volunteers and veterinarians spent more than
four months nursing Winter back to health in four-hour shifts, around the clock. Zucker and her family spent many nights cuddling with Winter and feeding 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 unique combination of moves that resemble an alligator’s undulating swimming style and a shark’s side-to-side tail swipes. Winter uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving,” Davis described.
But Winter remained at best a slow swimmer compared to wild dolphins, and would have been shark bait if released.
Working in re-tail
Zucker “formed a team to discuss the prospects of designing a tail for Winter,” Davis reported, who consulted with diving equipment makers, a tire manufacturer, and the U.S. Navy dolphin program in search of a way to make Winter a tail that would hold up to the stress of swimming normally.
“It’s uncharted territory,” Davis explained. “Fuji, an elderly dolphin who lives at an aquarium in Okinawa, had part of his tail remaining on which to attach a prosthesis.
“Winter doesn’t. Both her tail flukes and peduncle, a wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin tail to move up and down, were lost to necrosis.”
Said then-Clearwater Marine Aquarium director Stephen McCulloch, “The dolphin’s tail fin is the most powerful swimming mechanism Mother Nature ever designed. When you see how much
pressure they put on their flukes, the prosthesis is going to take a marvel of modern engineering.”
Further, Davis noted, “Winter will need at least three tails as she grows. She is now about
four feet long and weighs 110 pounds. When she is full grown at age 15, Winter will be twice as long and four times as heavy.”
Kevin Carroll accepted the challenge
The estimated cost of a prosthetic tail for Winter was also daunting. Fuji’s prosthetic tail cost about four times the entire monthly Clearwater Marine Aquarium operating budget.
Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for the Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland, in 2006 accepted the challenge of making tails for Winter. The Hanger Orthopedic Group absorbed the cost, “donating the staff time, materials, labor, imagination and creativity to create the device,” reported St. Petersburg Times staff writer Eileen Schulte.
Before the prosthetic was ready for fitting, Winter in February 2007 was transferred to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa for a week during construction to again expand the Clearwater Marine Aquarium dolphin facilities.
This was the only time Winter left the Clearwater Marine Aquarium after her rescue.
Winter finally got the first of her tails in late August 2007.
“It’s so small, so cute, like a pair of aquatic training wheels,” enthused Schulte. “The prosthesis stays on by suction technology, using an airtight seal,” Schulte noted.
The prosthetic tail was unfortunately not a perfect success, but did lead Carroll and the Hanger Orthopedic Group to a discovery now benefiting many humans.
“Winter wears the new tail only a half hour at a time, three or four times during the day,” wrote Mitch Stacy in 2011, “as her handlers continue to get her used to it and give her spine a break from the strain of the side-to-side swimming. She is trained to follow commands and patiently allows the prosthetic to be put on and taken off in front of adoring crowds.”
Mentioned Associated Press after Winter died, “Attaching the tail without damaging Winter’s skin was problematic because her skin was so thin it could be cut with a fingernail. Eventually, a soft silicone-like sleeve was created and is now marketed as WintersGel. The prosthetic tail then slid snugly over the sleeve. Such sleeves are now used for human prosthetics and have all but eliminated skin sores.”