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LSU Veterinary School Alumnus Helps Dolphin Recover After Losing its Tail

Movie tells the story of how dolphin learned to use prosthetic tail

Warner Brothers' movie "Dolphin Tale" is based on the real-life rescue and rehabilitation of a baby bottlenose dolphin named Winter and opened in theaters in September and will be available on DVD on Dec. 20.

In December 2005, a 3-month-old bottlenose dolphin became entrapped in a crab trap line in the Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral, Fla. The baby dolphin would come to be known as "Winter", in recognition of the cold winter day on which she was found. The story of the dolphin's rescue and rehabilitation is the basis of the movie, "Dolphin Tale," which was released by Warner Brothers in the theaters in September and will be available on DVD on Dec. 20.

Winter was originally sighted by a fisherman, who contacted local authorities. David Kilpatrick, an LSU School of Veterinary Medicine alumnus, was the veterinarian on a team of marine mammal stranding responders from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute that helped to rescue Winter.

What happened to the baby dolphin's mother is unknown; when rescuers came to the scene she was nowhere to be found and never appeared prior to retrieving the baby from the lagoon for transport.

"Her mother had likely learned to scavenge the bait from crab traps and as the baby dolphin lingered above on the water's surface she became entrapped in the float line," said Kilpatrick.

Arriving on the scene in an undeveloped area of the barrier island on the Indian River, the team carefully untangled Winter from the crab trap lines as avenues for bringing in rescue vehicles to the remote area were sought. After assessing Winter's injuries, inquiries were made among the facilities that are permitted to provide care for protected marine mammals in the state of Florida.

"Clearwater Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla., was able to accommodate her, and so we began the slow drive across the state in a specially fitted truck for transporting injured marine mammals," said Kilpatrick. "Winter remained stable during her transport, and we arrived in Clearwater near midnight. She was placed in a special pool set up for her and provided with constant attention as she was far too weak to swim unattended."

Kilpatrick said, "In my original examination of Winter, it was apparent that the rope entrapment of her peduncle [tail] and fluke [tail flipper] had severely compromised the blood supply to the area, raising the high probability that necrosis [tissue death] and loss of the tail fluke were likely."

LSU School of Veterinary Medicine alumnus David Kilpatrick (right - in blue) helps with the rescue of a pygmy sperm whale in Ft. Pierce, Fla.
Photo courtesy of David Kilpatrick

Euthanasia is a serious consideration in these cases as injuries to wild dolphins often require long term care in rehabilitation facilities, and the acclimatization to human care and feeding often makes return to their wild environment impossible.

"Winter was calm and relaxed when handled and examined in the water," said Kilpatrick. "Although I knew retrieving her from the lagoon and placing her in a captive environment would likely preclude her ever returning to her native life in the wild, Winter had unintentionally become an orphan and was completely helpless as a direct result of human activities. In a sense, we owed it to Winter to restore her life as best as possible and the many unknowns of her future would have to be addressed as they became manifest."

The rescue and transport of Winter to the Clearwater Aquarium was the first step in a long and extensive effort to save her life. Despite round-the-clock care, the tail fluke and last two vertebrae deteriorated and eventually separated from the tail. This rendered Winter unable to propel herself through the water with an up and down motion of the tail. She moved herself through the water by swinging the tail laterally back and forth like a fish and, although this was effective, a potentially life-threatening complication of this activity in a growing dolphin is scoliosis, or a curving of the spine.

After many arduous trials and failures, the dedicated efforts of the staffs at Clearwater Aquarium and Hangar Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc. were eventually able to develop a tail-fluke prosthesis for Winter that would both adhere to her body without irritation and yet withstand the incredible forces of propelling a 400-pound dolphin through the water.

David Kilpatrick (center) discusses the rescue of a pygmy sperm whale with rescuers and EMS responders in Ft. Pierce, Fla.
Photo courtesy of David Kilpatrick

"Although there were a few consultations regarding Winter's care during the first few weeks, the remainder of her long term rehabilitation and recovery were the result of the remarkable volunteers and staff at Clearwater Aquarium and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics," said Kilpatrick. "After Winter's tail fluke was lost to disease, intensive efforts were made to devise a prosthesis that Winter would tolerate, could withstand long immersion in saltwater and was of great overall durability.

"This process was time-consuming and fraught with many failures and required the determined, donated efforts of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics over a sustained period of time. In solving Winter's prosthetic needs, new insights were gained in the field of human prosthetics. Along the way Winter has become a source of inspiration for individuals with disabilities of all ages and the public at large. In giving Winter the benefit of the doubt we have helped not only her but ourselves."

Kilpatrick received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from LSU in 1988. He is the owner and a practicing veterinarian at Southside Veterinary Hospital in Vero Beach, Fla., and an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee veterinarian at Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Ft. Pierce, Fla. He sees wildlife cases weekly and has periodically assisted with marine mammal strandings and care for 14 years. Video footage of Kilpatrick and many of the marine mammal rescuers and rehabilitators can be seen during the actual rescue and rehabilitation of Winter at the end of the movie, "Dolphin Tale."