Tail-less Dolphin Helps Crime Victim

She can utter only a few words, is unable to walk on her own and can see little more than shadows and colors.

But, over the past three years, the young woman who was attacked and left for dead behind the Bloomingdale Regional Library April 24, 2008, has learned to communicate with her family through hand squeezes, grunts and facial expressions.

So, when the young woman was asked what she wanted to do for her 21st birthday, she was able to make it clear to her family that she had a destination in mind.

She wanted to visit Winter, the 5-year-old dolphin that lost its tail in a fishing trap, now living at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater.

This wasn’t the young woman’s first visit to see the dolphin that will be featured in a 3-D Hollywood film, “Dolphin Tale,”  starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, to be released Sept. 23.

She’s visited the dolphin twice before.

“The last time she was here, we lowered her onto a platform in 2 feet of water so she could interact with Winter,” said Tom Orr, who sits on the board of directors at the aquarium. “She was very emotionally excited and laughed almost the entire time. She was really touched by Winter. Then we presented her with a stuffed Winter toy, and she carries it with her wherever she goes.”

On the ride home from that visit, the young woman’s mother was surprised to hear her daughter utter the word, “Winter,” three times. She promptly called Orr with the good news.

“I was hoping the interaction would evoke a few words from her, and it did,” said Orr. “Once again, animal therapy worked. I’ve seen some amazing things occur when people are exposed to the dolphins.”

Like the young woman who was brutally attacked, Winter is a survivor, said Orr.

“They’ve both overcome amazing odds to survive,” said Orr. “They both illustrate how indomitable spirits can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”

Like the young woman, Winter, now 5 years old, wasn’t expected to live. No dolphin that’s lost its tail has ever survived before. But using new technology, Hanger Prosthetics was able to create a prosthetic tail for the dolphin that enabled her to swim again.

On Saturday, during the birthday party at the aquarium, Orr brought the prosthetic tail to the young woman, allowing her to touch the special gel liner developed especially for Winter that allows the aquarium to securely attach the prosthetic tail to the dolphin’s body.

“They went through 50 tails before they found one that worked,” said Orr. “It was a quarter of a million-dollar project. They are now using this same material developed for Winter, called Winter’s gel, for military personnel who have lost limbs because it’s so strong and has a sticky liner that keeps the prosthetic attached.”

While some people are benefitting from the technology developed for Winter, others are benefitting from exposure to the dolphin herself.

Orr said Winter is often used in therapy, and has a proven track record of helping people.

“We had a young boy from Germany who had been hit by a train visit Winter,” said Orr. “After interacting with Winter, he spoke for the first time. Dolphins have an ability to reach people sometimes better than humans.”

He noted that recently a woman who lost her leg in a motorcyle accident visited Winter at the aquarium searching for inspiration, said Orr. “She happened to get her prosthetic from the same company that made Winter’s.”

On Saturday, in honor of the library attack victim’s birthday, Winter created a painting for the young woman. The trainer placed a brush with paint on it in the dolphin’s mouth, and Winter painted a design on paper.

That’s just one of Winter’s tricks. Orr said the dolphin has proven to be an eager student, learning 30 commands for the film she will star in.

“The producers created a mechanical dolphin that looked exactly like Winter,” said Orr. “But, for the most part, they were able to use Winter herself in the filming.”

Also for the film, the producers built an addition onto the aquarium featuring a large dolphin pool. They artificially aged the structure so it would blend with the existing aquarium. That pool is now home to Hope, a 7-month-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin that was found nursing her dead mother in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast.

Hope happened to arrive at the Clearwater aquarium on the night of the wrap-up party for the film,” said Orr. “Harry Connick Jr. and the rest of the cast, all wearing cocktail attire, came out to see us unload her.”

Eventually, Hope and Winter will be paired in the same tank, said Orr, because dolphins require the companionship of other dolphins.

During Saturday’s visit with Winter, the young woman smiled and laughed as her wheelchair was pulled up next to the platform leading to Winter’s tank. She clutched the stuffed likeness of Winter in her hands.

After visiting Winter, the young woman’s family and friends hosted a luau-themed party for her in one of the aquarium’s educational classrooms. They invited children visiting the aquarium to share ice cream with the young woman.

The young woman, who has regained some use of her hands, was able to reach into a gift bag and pluck out a present brought to her. She smiled as her sister described the gift to her.

Later, she squeezed her mother’s hand to indicate her displeasure with her mother for talking about her too much.

“She doesn’t like to be talked about,” explained her mother. “She communicates with her expressions and by squeezing my hand. Sometimes she even gives me a little punch.”

Darla DiFerdinando, an occupational therapist who has been working with the young woman for two years, said she’s made amazing strides.

“She can now take 25 steps with assistance,” said DiFerdinando.

On this day, however, the young woman remained in her wheelchair. After the party, she visited the movie set of “Dolphin Tale,” including the houseboat that Connick Jr.’s character lived on in the movie. The film company donated the houseboat to the aquarium after filming.

The young woman, still mostly blind, was unable to see the houseboat but laughed as she was wheeled down the steep ramp leading to the boat.

Her mother believes one of the keys to her daughter’s recovery is to frequently expose her to different places so she can experience new sensations. To that end, the family takes her to the movies, out to restaurants and even to the beach.

“I think she had fun today,” said her sister of the visit to the aquarium. “She seems very happy.”

But Saturday’s party wasn’t the only gift from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Orr announced that the young woman and her family is invited to the premiere of the film, “A Dolphin Tale,” Sept. 22.

“I’m hoping the combined message of success from this young woman and Winter will serve as an inspiration to others,” said Orr.

Source: Bloomingdale Patch

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