Winter's tale

Winter’s tale

UF veterinarian plays key role in real-life care of “star” dolphin

By Sarah Carey

Winter the dolphin/Photo courtesy of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium


Anyone paying attention to entertainment news these days knows about the new movie “Dolphin Tale,” which opened Sept. 23 in theaters and tells the true story about Winter, a dolphin who survived entanglement in a buoy line and has been 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 partially based on UF’s Mike Walsh, D.V.M.

Mike Walsh

Walsh, associate director of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Aquatic Animal Health program, also performs veterinary services at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter has resided since being rescued in 2005.

Winter lost her tail because the blood supply to it had been cut off when she was tangled in the buoy line, Walsh said. Aquarium staff contacted Walsh, then director of veterinary services at Sea World in Orlando, to ask his advice about how to best obtain blood samples from the impaired dolphin. Blood samples are typically taken from the tail.

“I first had contact with Winter when she was a baby. 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.”

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 what the safest approach was and whether a prosthetic was a feasible option took some time, Walsh said. Eventually the park wound up working with a company called Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics.

“They had the best idea for achieving the goal without hurting Winter’s skin or causing other problems,” Walsh said.

Five years later, Winter is doing well, Walsh said. Walsh credits much of Winter’s success to Janine Cianciolo, D.V.M., who nursed the dolphin after her injury, and other members of the aquarium’s team. 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, and we have gone through numerous prototypes as a result,” he said. “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.

“The challenge with Winter is coming up with solutions to a problem that no one has dealt with before. 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.

Carolina Medina, D.V.M., chief of the college’s acupuncture and rehabilitation service, and Nicole Stacy, D.V.M., a clinical pathologist, have also played a role in Winter’s care.