Researchers Hope to Give Dolphin Prosthetic Tail

A baby bottlenose dolphin who lost her tail might get a new, prosthetic one. The dolphin got tangled in the line of a crab trap in Florida last year. Melissa Block talks with Dana Zucker, Chief Operating Officer at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where the dolphin is living.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A baby bottlenose dolphin who lost her tail could be getting a new one, a prosthetic tail. The dolphin got tangled in the line of a crab trap near Cape Canaveral, Florida, last December. She was taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and they're hoping to design a new tail for the young dolphin, whom they've named Winter.

Dana Zucker is chief operating officer with the aquarium and why don't you explain what kind of shape Winter was when she first came to the aquarium.

Ms. DANA ZUCKER (Clearwater Marine Aquarium): When we first actually received the call that she was actually coming to us and then when she got here we really didn't think she was going to make it. She was very young, very small, a dependent calf and had wounds that were just beyond our imagination. Rope lines wrapped around her mouth and then it was so tight around her tail that the circulation stopped for a long period of time, causing the tail to slowly self amputate.

BLOCK: Well how were you able to get her healthy again?

Ms. ZUCKER: Lots of loving care, lots of volunteers 24/7 for about four months came in on four people/four hour shifts feeding her in the middle of night in cold wetsuits outside.

BLOCK: Now she is able to swim even without her tail.

Ms. ZUCKER: Yeah actually within the first few years that she was here she was swimming. She uses her flippers almost as little paddles sometimes and she moves her body from side to side rather than moving the tail stub up and down. She really wiggles it back and forth and she moves like a bullet. She is fast and she dives. She's really amazing.

BLOCK: So why do you think she needs a tail? She looks like she is doing okay. I was looking at pictures and she looks pretty happy. I guess all dolphins look happy, but she looks like she's having a good time.

Ms. ZUCKER: She does, she looks like she's having a good time. She has no signs of stress. Our concern and the concern of the experts in the field feel as though we need to carefully monitor her because a dolphin does move up and down and we don't want to cause any spinal injury. And if we can get a tail that can go on for short amount of times during the day so that she can exercise her spine in the right way, it's going to create a dolphin who's going to be able to speak out for dolphins everywhere and keep dolphins wild because (unintelligible) line and crab traps are a big issue and a big killer of dolphins.

BLOCK: Well let's talk about this prosthetic tail that you'd like her to have. Have they ever done something like this before?

Ms. ZUCKER: There's only been one other case of a dolphin with a prosthetic tail that we know about, and that's Fuji, (unintelligible) Fuji, but he has a good portion of his tail left so they can fit something over his stump. Winter has an unusual thing because she's missing part of her peduncle, part of her stump, so we need to make something that can actually fit over there, almost like a wet suit so that she can exercise in the up and down motion. So people do feel that we can do it.

BLOCK: So how much would it cost?

Ms. ZUCKER: We don't know how much it would cost. We do know that Fuji's about four years ago cost $100,000. The thing that's different with Winter is that she'll need many tails. She'll need at least five tails over the course of her life. She's less than a year old. She'll be a year next month, and they don't become full grown until they're about 15 years old. So we'll have to get her bigger tails as she grows.

BLOCK: And no matter what you end up doing with Winter, Winter is staying in the aquarium. There's no way Winter can go back to the wild.

Ms. ZUCKER: There's no way Winter could go back out to the wild. Unfortunately for her and unfortunately for us she will be here.

BLOCK: Well Dana Zucker good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Ms. ZUCKER: Thank you.

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