Anyone paying attention to entertainment news these days knows about the new movie, Dolphin Tale, which opened Sept. 23 in theatres and tells the true story about Winter, a dolphin that survived entanglement in a buoy line by subsequently being outfitted with a prosthetic tail. What’s perhaps less commonly known is that the character of Winter’s veterinarian, played by Harry Connick Jr., is loosely based on none other than the University of Florida’s Dr. Mike Walsh.
Walsh, who is associate director of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Aquatic Animal Health program, also performs veterinary services at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is where Winter has resided since being rescued by scientists from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce back in 2005. Aquarium staff contacted Walsh, who was director of veterinary services at Sea World in Orlando at the time, to ask his advice about how to best obtain blood samples from the impaired dolphin.
“I first had contact with Winter when she was a baby, and because she was missing her tail, there was confusion as to how to get blood samples from her on a regular basis to keep track of what was happening with her,” Walsh said. “The probability of infection was high, so we needed to monitor blood on a regular basis.”
Winter had lost her tail because the blood supply to it had been cut off when she was tangled in the buoy line, Walsh said. He recommended that samples be taken from the peduncle, the area between the dorsal fin and the tail since it could not be obtained from the tail, which is standard for obtaining blood samples from most dolphins but was impossible in Winter’s case.
A year or so later, Walsh was serving as the park’s veterinarian. Many companies and individuals had approached the park about creating some type of prosthetic tail, but deciding whether this was a feasible option – as an alternative to euthanasia – and what the safest approach was, took some time, Walsh said. Eventually the park wound up working with a company called Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics of Waterville, Maine.
“They had the best idea for achieving the goal without hurting Winter’s skin or causing other problems, and we thought that working with David Yates’ team at Clearwater was going to be a long term benefit for Winter,” Walsh said. He added that Winter’s success from a medical perspective was greatly impacted by Dr. Janine Cianciolo, who took care of her after her injury and nursed the dolphin, along with other members of the aquarium’s team, through infection, wound healing and growth.
Five years later, Winter is doing well, Walsh said. However, he cautions that managing her tail is an ongoing, lifetime issue.
“We still have a great need to continue to make progress and to make things even better over the long run,” he said, adding that as Winter grows, the needs of her tail change also.
Winter’s prosthetic fin is “like a sock made for a certain sized shoe,” Walsh said. “Her tail has been modified many times by the Hanger group team headed by Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka, and we have gone through numerous prototypes as a result as the need for change. Each time we introduce a new tail, we have to go through a readaptation process, depending on how well it fits and the degree of propulsion she gets from it.”
Veterinarians need to make sure not only that Winter is moving properly and building her muscles, but also that she can function well in a multiple animal environment with individuals that have normal tail structure, Walsh said.
“The challenge with Winter is coming up with solutions to a problem that no one has dealt with before,” Walsh said. “This is where the College of Veterinary Medicine excels.”
When filming took place for the movie, Walsh spent a day at the park with Harry Connick, Jr., talking to him about various medical issues experienced by animals there, including showing the star how some stranded sea turtles were being treated.
For his involvement, Walsh was offered two tickets to the movie’s premier in Los Angeles, although he turned them down due to other obligations.
Others from UF have also played an important role in Winter’s care over the past few years, including Dr. Carolina Medina, chief of the college’s acupuncture and rehabilitation service, and Dr. Nicole Stacy, a clinical pathologist.
Medina said she had gone to see Winter several times in the past two years, adding that she performed acupressure, laser therapy and therapeutic ultrasound, and in addition, showed Winter’s trainers how to perform massage and stretching exercises.
Stacy has been involved in processing and interpreting diagnostic samples from Winter since 2009, “two to three times a week and more frequently during the time of filming last year for the purpose of monitoring her health during the process,” Stacy said.