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Winter's story has some hard lessons

I'm waiting for the movie about the pig with a prosthesis.

They're amazing animals, pigs are, as smart as dogs, able to sniff out truffles through several feet of packed earth, resourceful enough to get along as well in the wild as in a pen.

So when one of them loses its main source of propulsion — a heavily muscled rear leg — do we cuddle the stricken creature, hand-feed it, spend hours with it playing therapeutic games? Not likely. That leg is called a ham.

No, I have nothing against the newly released movie, Dolphin Tale, which was inspired (in case you missed the thousand or so stories in this paper) by real events that took place in Clearwater.

I just thought it might be a good time to point out the obvious: when it comes to animals, we play favorites.

And sometimes we even favor animals over children.

The people at Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, the national company that donated Winter's artificial tail, built about 55 different versions. More than a dozen of these prosthetics were prototypes. The others ensured that the fit and function of the tail were just right as the young dolphin's needs changed over time, said Jennifer Bittner, company spokeswoman.

"It was a combination of accommodating her growth and fine-tuning."

Advocates for humans who need artificial limbs say they are pleased with the media attention devoted to Winter, an animal teaching humans how full life can be with a prosthesis.

But these human amputees' lives might be even fuller if their artificial limbs were as nice as Winter's.

Insurers typically cap payouts for prosthetic devices at $2,500 to $5,000 per year, said Dan Ignaszewski, a lobbyist with the Amputee Coalition, a national nonprofit advocacy group. That means lots of growing children get by with ill-fitting limbs, and, when they do get a replacement, the payments only cover "an extremely basic peg leg or a very basic device for an arm," Ignaszewski said.

A bill to lift these caps was introduced this year in the Florida Legislature, he said, and went nowhere.

Even an "extremely basic peg leg" would probably be welcome to amputees in countries such as Chad and Cambodia that are littered with old land mines. Though these explosives claim fewer victims than they once did, they still caused nearly 4,000 deaths and injuries in 2009, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitors advocacy group.

And "among countries with the largest numbers of child casualties … all have extremely limited access to assistance of all kinds, including prosthetics and ongoing medical care," said Megan Burke, the organization's victims assistance editor.

Hopefully, Winter, whose tail was injured in a crab trap, can bring attention to the problem of "bycatch." That's the term for the collateral damage of the fishing industry — marine life killed as fishing and crabbing operations go after other, targeted species.

Generally, it's regarded as waste and dumped overboard. In U.S. commercial fleets, it accounts for 17 percent of the total catch, including hundreds of dolphins, according to a report released Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That percentage is much higher in other countries where fishing is poorly regulated, said Karen Vale of the World Society of the Protection of Animals.

"On a global scale, this is a huge problem," Vale said, killing an estimated 300,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales each year.

Winter's home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, is a rehabilitation outfit. Nursing animals back to health is what it does, apparently very well.

But obviously, this kind of care is no way to solve the problem of vast numbers of marine mammals — many of them no doubt as smart and spirited as Winter — being caught in gill nets or tangled in fishing line.

What is? Well, we could eat a little less seafood, especially some of the premium species — striped sea bass and king mackerel — caught with the nets that most commonly snag dolphins. We could stay away from attractions, such as SeaWorld, that display captured marine mammals. Mass hunts of dolphins like the ones featured in the documentary The Cove wouldn't be financially feasible if not for the money that can be made corralling young, good-looking specimens, Vale said.

And we can remember that the only way to save wild creatures is to save their habitat, and that selecting one animal to treat like a pampered human makes as much sense with dolphins as it does with pigs.

Winter's story has some hard lessons 09/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 5:34pm]

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