Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Other Side of the Dolphin Tale

As Winter's Tale hits the Silver Screen, Misty remains alone in Taiji

In December 2005, fisherman Jim Savage rescued a young dolphin entangled in a crab pot off the Canaveral National Shoreline in Florida.  The two-month old dolphin was critically injured while trying to free herself.  Savage freed the dolphin from the trap’s synthetic lines, but her injuries were far too serious to set her free. The animal was transported to Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA); a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the oceans via rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine life. Despite every effort on the part of CMA staff, the dolphin, soon to be known as “Winter” lost her injured tail and several vertebrae. 

With constant care from CMA staff, Winter adapted and was able to swim without her flukes; however, CMA recognized that the dolphin needed a tail for long term survival.  Kevin Carroll, a world famous prosthetist, heard Winter's story and offered to create a prosthetic tail. Carroll and fellow prosthetist Dan Strzempka worked for over a year to build the appendage.  Not every human adapts successfully to a prosthetic. So what about a dolphin? Winter quickly adapted to her new silicone prosthetic tail, making her the first dolphin in history to wear a prosthetic!  However, because of the device, she can never be released back into the ocean.

On September 23, the story of Winter will make its way to the Silver Screen courtesy of Warner Bros studios. Dolphin Tale features a star-studded cast including Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Kris Kristofferson and Nathan Gamble.  The role of Winter is played by none other than the rescued dolphin.  

While CMA has gone to heroic lengths to rehabilitate Winter, the fact remains that this dolphin, like thousands of others worldwide, is held in a tiny pool, has to work for a living, exists on a diet of dead fish and has no hope of ever seeing the ocean again. Winter spent long hours under hot lights filming “Dolphin Tale”.  In general, the lives of captive dolphins are much shorter than their counterparts in the wild.  As well-intended as CMA might be, a pool can never replace the ocean.  Dolphins in captivity face ongoing stress caused by crowds of people and from being on constant display.  One might hope that with all her earnings, CMA would provide Winter a real sanctuary somewhere on the coastline where she could feel the natural ocean rhythm again and escape from thousands of watchful eyes - rather than exploiting her as a tourist attraction.

In 2009, a documentary about dolphins won an Academy Award.  Directed by Louie Psihoyos and starring Ric O’Barry, The Cove tells the tragic story of thousands of dolphins who are hunted by the fishing fleet of Taiji, Japan, and either slaughtered for meat or sold into captivity.   Pods of dolphins are literally chased into a tiny cove where they await selection by trainers who then determine who shall live and who shall die.  Those selected for captivity are moved into pens where their indoctrination into captivity begins.  Over in the cove, the water turns from azure blue to blood red as the rest are slowly bludgeoned to death.

While Winter the Dolphin gets the celebrity treatment in honor of the movie release, across the world another captive dolphin by the name of “Misty” is believed to be held in isolation in a squalid pool at the Taiji, Japan Dolphin Base Resort.  Misty was originally discovered in December 2010 by activists who were on the ground in Taiji to protest the slaughter and captivity of dolphins in the Cove.  The animal was floating listlessly in a filthy backyard pool, just hours from death.  Isolated due to a lung infection, Misty clung to a yellow buoy, the bottom of his shallow pool littered with rotting fish.  Within hours the social media group “Save Misty the Dolphin” was formed on Facebook, and over the course of just a few days, thousands of calls were logged to Dolphin Base demanding better care for the sickly animal.  In the early days of January, Misty was moved to a bigger, cleaner pool at Dolphin Base, but for months now advocates and concerned citizens have been prevented from accessing the lone dolphin in order to verify his health status and conditions of confinement.
The science on dolphin intelligence is definitive as researchers increasingly call for them to be considered as “non-human persons”.  “In particular, the highly elaborated cingulate and insular cortex in cetacean brains are consistent with the idea that these animals are highly sophisticated and sensitive in the emotional and social emotional sophistication not achieved by other animals including humans” (Phil Brakes, and Mark Peter Simons, Whales and Dolphins Cognition, Culture, Conservation and Human Perception, Washington D.C,, Earthspan, 2011). Will Winter’s story enable people to accept dolphin intelligence and dolphin rights in non-human persons' status or will Dolphin Tale have the opposite effect; driving more customers through the doors of SeaWorld and other captive facilities where healthy dolphins, that could be living at home in the oceans with their families are instead imprisoned in small cement tanks far from family and the sounds of the ocean? 
As we see in the 2011 documentary  A Fall from Freedom, captivity is deadly for marine mammals. Dolphins live in captivity just a fraction of a typical life span. There is a clear link between drive fisheries, SeaWorld and other marine aquariums. When Iki island in Japan ended their drive fishery because of worldwide outcry, SeaWorld convinced them to continue. Just as trainers arrive these days in Taiji, Japan to select dolphins for captivity, notorious dolphin trafficker Jay Sweeney would arrive in Iki to pick the most attractive.  The remaining pod, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, would be killed. Today no dolphins swim off the shores off Iki island. The pods native to the area are gone forever. In A fall from freedom we see Jay Sweeney, a founder of the International Marine Mammals Trainers Association, selecting dolphins and orcas during violent captures. The captive animals are shipped to aquariums all over the world. Very few captured marine mammals live more than a few years. Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium, is one exception. For over forty years she has been confined to a tiny pool, where she performs seven days a week.  Concerned citizens have requested again and again that Lolita be released. Advocates have located Lolita’s family and offered to return her to the ocean covering all costs, but the aquarium has refused. Lolita, like Winter, is a box office success that continues to bring dollars into the aquarium.
Dolphin Tale, A Fall From Freedom, and The Cove have one commonality and that is they all compel us as humans to consider the concept of dolphins as individuals, as non-human persons. Winter overcame extraordinary obstacles many amputees never do to successfully manipulate an artificial limb. Each day more stories are told in the news of dolphins rescuing humans, and attempting to communicate with humans. If we could talk to Winter, what would she say? It is likely she would first thank her family at CMA. There is no doubt they love her like family. Might she go on to ask us to remember other dolphins of the world, those being impacted by pollution, those dying in fish nets and lines, and those being driven into the bloody Cove of Taiji, Japan, where prison or death waits? Hopefully the release of a Dolphin Tale will make the world sensitive to the tragic plight of marine mammals in captivity.  Dolphins have so much to teach us. These are the people of the sea, and what we see in their eyes may be a reflection of our own.


  1. Fantastic, thought provoking, in depth and incredibly well written. Thank You

  2. All of these captive animals have such history! So interesting and tragic! I wish these movie makers would invest their money on making the film that tells the truth. Educating people as "The Cove" and "A fall from freedom" has done. Some People still don't want to accept the fact that the Dolphins and whales are almost as intelligent as human beings! I am happy for Winter, at least she is alive and loved, and yes I do hope they will make the Dolphin Sanctuary for her but I hope they will do more then that! Create a force and program to Save dolphins such as Poor Misty :(

  3. Excellent article telling what really happens behind the curtains... Winter's Tale is one of hope for Winter, and perhaps with this movie of Dolphin Tale, there will be more compassion for the dolphins. But my real fear is that with more captive dolphin exposure, even more dolphins will be demanded to perform by the masses. That means,there will be more hunts to acquire these living trophies for human entertainment. So I ask this: WHY can we not love them in their own environment? Why do we insist on removing them from their free lives at sea to cage them and make them perform for us? They would love to see us on the Dolphin Cruises in their own habitat... the ocean... That is where the Truth Lies and their Happiness Resides ... Dolphins in Captivity only serve one purpose and that is to entertain people and to bring in money for the places they are held captive. Please, people, Let's Not Tell Our Children that Captive Dolphins are Part of "The American Dream". I am asking everyone who has not yet done so, to Please Wake Up!

  4. I have said since day one that I could not support this film because it will glorify captive dolphins and even more people will see nothing wrong with keeping a dolphin in a tiny bathtub as these marine parks only love their dolphins and care for them so well and that is why they fitted Winter with a tail. What the general public doesn't understand is that dolphins are a huge money maker for parks and that if there was no money involved, they sure wouldn't have bothered to put a tail onto Winter.

    I will not and can not support this movie and I wish others would boycott it as a statement to how we feel about captive dolphins. I wish that Winter would be released back into the wild. Even a short life as a wild dolphin would be better than a long life as a captive one.

    1. You want to kill winter ?

    2. No.Shut up before I kick your ass >:(

  5. Winter is not a captive Dolphin and she doesn't work for her food. Since she was injured at only two months old she never had a chance to learn normal Dolphin skills. It's a proven fact that Dolphins need social stimulation. I don't understand people who would be happier if Winter died than having her happy and thriving at CMA.

  6. Not happier that if Winter died ... but happier if other dolphins were NOT ALLOWED TO DIE in captivity! This movie is a MONEY-MAKER, which will draw more people in to watch dolphins 'perform' for them - destined to a life of captivity and misery for a few short hours of human fun. Humans - go to the beach for free and get your fun watching marine animals in their natural environment - or pay to go on a boat to see them close up - WAKE UP!!!!

  7. I am Anti-captivity. However in this case, it was a miracle she was found at such an early age with a horrific injury. Winter is NOT made to perform for her keep. She is provded with veterinary care, food and social interaction which is all the things she needs. This movie is about her and those blessings...nothing else. It does NOT promote pro-captivity. I believe the public will not take this movie for anything other than what it is... Winters story.

  8. Hopefully Winter's Tale will help people see that only marine mammals that absolutely cannot be returned to the wild and survive should be allowed to be exhibited. No swim with, no petting, no kissing for a photo even if it cannot be returned, but treated with respect. Those who can survive in the wild should be allowed to remain wild, not hand fed, not imprisoned for "education, nor to make money off of" --- just FREE! They have committed NO CRIME!

  9. It is true that people need to become more aware that dolphins in captivity for entertainment is immoral and unjustifiable.
    I, too, am anti-captivity, but to say that Winter is being exploited as a tourist attraction seems pretty shaky. From what it seems, CMA is a not-for-profit organization. She's not being forced to perform to eat. She was found at 2 months of age so she never learned to interact with other dolphins completely. So being in front of "thousands of watchful eyes" is probably a good thing as interacting with people is all she knows. I will agree that she should be given a bigger pool and perhaps a piece of the ocean but who knows if CMA even got any considerable amount of money to rebuild or relocate their entire facility?
    Please give a little bit more credit to this organization who did not have to, but did spend so much time and money to rehabilitate Winter. Let's instead focus our energy on making the general public more aware of captive dolphins in entertainment.

  10. Good article, well written. Dolphin Tale will most likely increase interest in having captive dolphins for entertainment. The ultimate message of Winter's tale is human dominion over the rest of Nature, not a bond with it. Sad.

  11. I've been to CMA and saw Winter well before this movie put her the national spotlight. CMA is not a swanky place. It is a modest facility and doesn't do much by way of animal shows (it's not like a Sea World, for example). It was more like a wildlife rehab facility than a tourist aquarium. At that time, much of the training they did with marine mammals was related to facilitating their care in captivity (i.e. training them to open their mouths on command so their teeth can be inspected).

    I am not sure that, before this movie, there is much by way of Winter's "earnings" to be spending on fancy oceanside digs for her. Maybe that will change now; surely the CMA will be higher on people's lists of must-see stops when they are in the Tampa area. I expect the facility will change (whether in good ways or bad remains to be seen) with the increased attention. But to criticize them as exploiting Winter (before this film) does not really align with my experience of the place.

  12. Winter's celebrity could be the very thing that kills her. As well intentioned as the CMA was when she was re-habilited the circumstances have changed drastically. Winter is now subjected to noise levels beyond her tolerance, she is under constant stress from all of the people activity around her. She needs to be moved to an ocean pen to live our her days in relative peace. #dolphinsloveus

    1. What evidence do you have that shows or proves that she is under constant stress? And noise levels beyond her tolerance?
      Everyone is quick to give their opinions knowing nothing of the facts or circumstances surrounding events or situations.
      How about visiting the facility and educating yourself before making ridiculous accusations.
      I to LOVE dolphins, have followed Winter's story, and have just recently visited the facility. During my visit, I was not witness to the environment that you are trying to impress upon others. What I witnessed was quite the opposite, and the dolphins actually appeared to me to be eager to return to the main pool, which is where everyone waits and watches to see the dolphins.
      CMA is NOT, at this time, performing "Seaworld"-like shows. They only introduce Winter and the other dolphins, and tell her story while allowing visitors to see her prosthetic and how it has helped her.
      If anyone is considering visiting CMA, do not expect to see high jumping acrobatics and a flashy performance from these dolphins. This is not an aquarium as most people expect, instead it is a marine hospital and rehabilitation center that is open to the public.
      They are currently raising funds to finish a new facility that will hopefully continue to operate under the same standards.

  13. I was at CMA this past summer and experienced this facility and the care of these animals first hand. The facility serves first and foremost as an animal hospital and rehab facility, not as a tourist attraction for dolphin shows. In fact, when I had the pleasure of meeting Winter for the first time, she was floating on her own raft enjoying the calm and it was heart-warming to see.

    The main goal of the staff is to teach the animals to participate in their own care, for example teaching them to suck out of a baby bottle or get in the net to be weighed. I visited this facility in June, on a weekend, in the middle of the day and there were very few visitors. It's certainly not some posh facility or tourist attraction.

    The marine biologists, interns, doctors and 800 volunteers there, saved Winter's life. They love all the animals there and it shows. This is not about "pro-captivity" it's about rehab. Winter is not capable of being released into the wild after her rehab because she lacks the hunting skills to find her own food as well as the obvious prosthetic tail. These animals would have died if they had not received this care.

    And let's not forget the invention of Winter's Gel- the soft, pliable material they invented to help Winter adjust more comfortably to her tail that in turn now helps Veteran's and those wearing prosthetic limbs to wear them without pain.

    The other stories here about dolphin slaughters in Japan are truly disturbing to me, but let's be fair and compare apples to apples and not mix that with this.

  14. A very interesting blog piece and some thought-provoking comments.

    I have to wonder why, if Winter is not a tourist attraction as some posters above claim, the web address for Clearwater Aquarium is

    I also have to ask - does this look and sound like a rehabilitation sanctuary to you? (Video of Winter at the aquarium)

    Let's not forget the reason why Winter is in captivity in the first place, too: her injuries were caused by humans, were they not? Read more here:

  15. CMA is first and foremost a rehab center. ALL animals that come there are ones that were found injured or stranded. The single goal is release. BTW, be happy if CMA is making money from Winter. They use ALL of the money to help injured animals. Until Winter they were close to shutting down for lack of funds.
    Folks, these are the GOOD guys! I have a question. WHO else is going to rescue and rehab injured marine life? There are several facilities that do it around the country and CMA is one of the better ones and frequently takes animals others cannot handle. Also, you need many such places around the country since most injured animals will not survive transport over long distances.
    Before you bash CMA, do some REAL research about the place. Look at what they do, who they are, and why you should be happy that Winter is there. She is well cared for and generating income to help other animals. They are using the movie income to update the facility. Will it look fancier? Sure. It is currently an old sewage treatment plant donated by the city. I think new, larger facilities would be a good thing, no?
    BTW, building a "real" ocean environment for her would take huge amounts of money that could be used to rehab and release others.
    So unless you are volunteering to be on call 24 hours a day and ready to spend day and night with an injured animal whenever you are called, try to have some respect for the people that actually do something.
    And no, I am not affiliated with CMA, but I have been there several times and have worked with many people who do this sort of work.

    p.s. Dying horribly in the wild is NOT better than living in a controlled environment with people that care about you.

  16. Why aren't ocean pens available to the Clearwater dolphins? We visited in January and the areas the dolphins are kept in are incredibly small. Why wouldn't the dolphins home environment be a part of rehab (is it cost)?

  17. I have a question for all those of you who have a problem with Winter and the other dolphins, and while we are at it, the turtles and otters that CMA has rescued, rehabilitated and have taken on the responsibility of caring for and loving these animals that cannot be released back to the wild because they would be targets for preditors or starve to death because they were too young to learn from their own when they got to CMA or were injured and will never be able to defend themselves. But no one has mentioned all the animals CMA has released. Thousands of turtles and some dolphins. And Dunham, in July 2009 a dolphin they helped rescue that another facility rehabed and he was brought back to CMA to release. While the team followed him toward the Gulf, rejoicing in his freedom... they watched in horror as he was attacked and killed by a 9 foot Tiger shark.

    Now my question... how many of you have parents or grandparents in nursing homes or long care facilities. They have been taken out of their homes and stuck into small rooms, often having to share rooms with others. Do you think they really want to be there? But you know it is for their well being... as long as it is a good clean, caring and competent place(if you care). And if you really care about them you go and see them, and are they happy to see you, do they enjoy the company of someone wanting to spend time with them?

    What makes you think dolphins (mammals just like us) are so different?

  18. Very well put together article, thank you.

    While CMA has done a wonderful thing to save Winter, they have still exploited her - now three times - to make FILMS for money. That is the part that makes my stomach churn.

  19. I will sign to help seaworld for free.Matthew (which is me) will not give up to save marine.You can believe in me.If we work together as a team,we can save ocean life and let them live free :)

    1. and we can do our best to rescue whether marine or not.This animal world lies on our help :D