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Winter the dolphin’s illness ‘still a bit of a mystery’

The “Dolphin Tale” star has had infections like this before but isn’t responding to treatment this time. She is now in critical condition
Clearwater Marine Aquarium staff tend to Winter the dolphin Thursday.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium staff tend to Winter the dolphin Thursday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Nov. 11
Updated Nov. 12

As Winter the dolphin bobbed quietly in a nearby medical pool with a caretaker patting her head, James “Buddy” Powell, executive director of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, gave an update Thursday on the animal that remains in critical condition.

Related: UPDATE: Winter the dolphin died at Clearwater aquarium on Thursday evening

The injured dolphin who was the star of the hit movie Dolphin Tale has been ill and under observation at the aquarium, where they say she is so far not responding to medical treatment for a gastrointestinal infection.

Axel Neff, 41, of Buffalo, N.Y., second from left, holds his daughter Pippa Neff, 5, as his wife Katie Neff, 37, right, holds their 1-year-old son Archer while looking for Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday. She is in a medical tank but visible from a distance.
Axel Neff, 41, of Buffalo, N.Y., second from left, holds his daughter Pippa Neff, 5, as his wife Katie Neff, 37, right, holds their 1-year-old son Archer while looking for Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday. She is in a medical tank but visible from a distance. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“These intestinal issues are not uncommon in marine mammals,” Powell said. “Actually Winter before this has had some of these issues, but this time it has just continued to progress. There are treatments, but she hasn’t responded. So it still is a little bit of a mystery as to what caused it.

Related: 'Dolphin Tale' didn't change Winter but it changed her Clearwater home

He said the other animals in the facility’s care, such as Hope, the subject of Dolphin Tale 2, have not shown signs of similar issues.

The Clearwater aquarium has cared for Winter since she was rescued on Dec. 10, 2005, near Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast. At just 2 months old, Winter’s tail became entangled in a crab trap. She ultimately lost the tail, and became famous for the prosthetic with which she was fitted.

Axel Neff, 3, left, and his sister Pippa Neff, 5, hold get-well cards for Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday. The aquarium has received thousands of get-well messages since news of Winter's illness became public.
Axel Neff, 3, left, and his sister Pippa Neff, 5, hold get-well cards for Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday. The aquarium has received thousands of get-well messages since news of Winter's illness became public. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Winter’s story has inspired scores of amputees and sick children to make a trip to the marine hospital on Clearwater’s coast, where they feel a connection with the dolphin’s fighting spirit.

Her story was told in the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.

“Sixteen is not that young nor that old for a dolphin,” Powell said. A dolphin can live to be around 28 years old in the wild, and in aquariums they are known to live longer. “We are paying very close attention to this.”

An unidentified staff member kisses Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday. The aquarium will be closed Friday so the staff can better focus on her care.
An unidentified staff member kisses Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday. The aquarium will be closed Friday so the staff can better focus on her care. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The animal care staff is administering medication orally and intravenously, and she is getting blood tests and ultrasounds daily, Powell said.

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Austin Highsmith Garces, who played Phoebe in both Dolphin Tale movies, tweeted a picture of herself with Winter and the message, “Lifting sweet Winter up in prayer as she continues to fight her way through this illness. I love you, Wintie. Stay strong, sweet girl.”

The aquarium was open Thursday and the public could see her from a distance on the third deck of the Dolphin Terrace section of the aquarium. The facility will be closed Friday and reopen Saturday at 10 a.m.

Officials said a day without visitors will create an easier environment for Winter’s medical team, who are consulting with experts from around the world.

“We want to be very sensitive to the medical care staff so they can completely focus on her care,” Powell said.

Alarm bells went off when her caregivers noticed she wasn’t eating as usual, he said.

Winter the dolphin is convalescing in a smaller pool housed in a medical building at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Winter the dolphin is convalescing in a smaller pool housed in a medical building at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“We noticed last week she was off feeding a bit. Right now she is being very docile,” Powell said. “She is moving around and is responding to people, but our animal care specialists are with her 24/7.”

Dolphin Tale helped the aquarium more than double its attendance, from 200,000 guests per year in 2010 to more than half a million every year since. That allowed the facility to afford an $80 million expansion and triple the space it has to take care of animals.

The staff has been touched by the wave of get-well wishes that have come their way in the last few days in the form of cards at the aquarium and thousands of messages on the aquarium’s Facebook page, Powell said.

“Winter is adored by the world,” Powell said. “We want to thank everyone who has shown so much love and appreciation. We are tremendously appreciative of everyone.”

Winter the bottlenose dolphin swims in a tank at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in September. She is in critical condition, the aquarium says, because she is not responding to treatment for an infection.
Winter the bottlenose dolphin swims in a tank at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in September. She is in critical condition, the aquarium says, because she is not responding to treatment for an infection. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]