The Dolphin Tale movie (rated PG) about the dolphin named Winter with a prosthetic tail, comes out in theaters on September 23. To prepare you for the movie, Abby Stone, Winter’s actual trainer from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), has answered some of YOUR questions. Read on to find out more about Winter, the amazing dolphin with a fake tail, and what the life of a dolphin trainer is like.
Q: How did Winter feel about the tail and what was her reaction?
Abby: The prosthetic tail has been a positive experience for Winter and she continues to respond with energy and enthusiasm based on trust and the strength of our relationship. Winter certainly was, and continues to be, an active participant in the training process, helping us determine how and when to advance to the next step. And of course, our approach to training is always fun, motivating Winter to try new things. We were definitely encouraged by Winter’s reaction of curiosity to the various stages as well as her eagerness to test her new tail without the aid of her trainers.
Q: Is Winter the only animal with a prosthetic, or is it more common now for injured animals to be cured like this?
Abby: Winter is the only dolphin in the world to have a prosthetic that involves the entire tail as well as the joint that connects to the peduncle [the narrow part of the tail that attaches to the fin]. There are a variety of animals that have prosthetic devices to assist with the quality of life – including horses, elephants, turtles, kangaroos, and birds!
Q: Can Winter have babies?
Abby: Physically, Winter has the proper internal anatomy to have a calf although at this point, she is still too young. Because Winter does not have a tail, it would have to be discussed with our veterinarian.
Q: Does Winter have any enemies at the aquarium?
Abby: Winter is provided with a very safe and loving home at CMA free of any natural predators.
Q: How do you train dolphins to do tricks?
Abby: We teach our animals to do behaviors that come naturally to them in a very slow process using positive reinforcement. We ask the animals to do bits and pieces of a behavior until the animal has the understanding to put all of the pieces together! This process can take a few training sessions, months, or years to train to its entirety!
Q: When will Winter be introduced to Hope? [Hope is the latest rescued dolphin living at CMA. She was found orphaned last December when she was only 3 months old!]
Abby: Our plan is to introduce the two later this year. We are looking at introductions around October or November.
Q: Is it true that dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors?
Abby: There is plenty of research regarding this theory. “Nicholas,” one of CMA’s resident dolphins, had an opportunity to participate in a self-recognition study that had encouraging results, suggesting that dolphins do in fact have this ability. The extent of dolphin self-awareness remains to be explored!
Q: Why did you decide to become a trainer?
Abby: I’ve established good relationships with the dolphins and I feel very comfortable in the water with them. I appreciate dolphins for their intelligence and ability to express a lot of emotion. Each dolphin is truly an individual with their own “dolphinality” that comes from their own unique experiences and perspectives. Trainers have an incredible opportunity to establish a bond with these amazing animals and this is a truly beautiful experience.
Q: How did you get your job as a dolphin trainer?
Abby: I visited CMA as a kid and was convinced that I would one day work there. I was drawn to CMA’s mission of rescue and release. While in high school, I was afforded my first internship and continued on through college. I received a degree in psychology and was offered a full-time job upon graduation in 2002.
Q: What is a typical day at the aquarium like for you?
Abby: In a typical day I spend several hours interacting with our animals one-on-one for exercise, fun, and stimulation. Outside of animal interactions, I assist with food preparation, exhibit maintenance, record keeping, and observations of the animals. Education and guest interaction is another big part of my day too. I enjoy the more intimate times building relationships with the animals as well as teaming up with the animals to make a fun show for the guests.
Q: What is the most important thing people can do to protect ocean animals?
Abby: Educate one another about the animals that live in the water environment. Through knowledge, people make better decisions about how to interact within the marine environment — decisions like recycling, using caution with equipment when fishing and boating, and calling the proper authorities for assistance if an animal may be in distress.
Interview courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.