History of Winter's Tails and where we are today.
The collaborative efforts of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc., a leading human prosthetics company, with Dr. Mike Walsh, a leading marine mammal veterinarian, and CMA's world-class marine mammal trainers, created one well-thought-out plan of action. How, you might ask, does one go about preparing a dolphin for a prosthetic tail? It certainly is challenging: attaching a complete fluke and joint onto an inexperienced dolphin had never been done before, but it was a challenge we felt good about!
When we first started to train Winter to allow us to put the prosthetic on her body, we found Winter took to the process quite well. However, the series of approximations, or learning steps took some time. Over the course of several months, Winter learned the correct body position to be fitted for a stretchy, plastic sleeve, one that is also used for human prosthetics. Her trainers have creatively fashioned a more form-fitting version of the sleeve – it works wonders although it looks strange to say the least! The sleeve, in its original form, is ultimately used to attach the prosthetic fluke to her peduncle. After the sleeve is in place on her peduncle, the muscular part of a dolphin before the tail-flukes, we are in turn able to put the prosthetic on top of the sleeve. Once the prosthetic is in place, we check to ensure a snug and comfortable fit. We will ask Winter to swim with the prosthetic for a lap or two around the pool and re-check the fit of the tail before we start the workout!
Tail flukes are the powerhouse of the dolphin. Without her prosthetic, to compensate for the absence of flukes, Winter utilizes her entire body in order to propel herself forward, moving from side-to-side like a shark. Behaviorally, our goal is to use the prosthetic as a cue or "discriminative stimulus" to swim in a normal up-and-down fashion working all muscles that surround the peduncle while still maintaining her ability to swim comfortably when the prosthetic is off.
In our latest sessions, we attempt to convey the idea that calm behavior is the name of the game; persuading a playful animal to pay attention is like trying to get a pre-schooler to be studious. Our training process with the prosthetic tail is an ongoing process. As mentioned earlier, it takes many creative minds to build what is ultimately the best for the animal. This is why the dedication and the creative minds of the trainers, the veterinarian, and Hanger prosthetics are an invaluable resource to the ongoing care of our beloved Winter!
Putting Winter's Tail On...
The many steps to putting on Winter's tail start with a "sock." This is what we call the famous "Winter's Gel." The sock is a very soft rubbery material that has helped many veterans and amputees reduce the pain of their prostheses. The sock reduces skin friction and helps the tail stay on. Next the "cup" is placed just at the base of Winter's peduncle, above the fluke. The cup is molded to fit the peduncle exactly. The main suspension strap is then secured. Next the sleeve is pulled over the entire tail to secure everything. And finally a newer feature to Winter's tail, the rubber band, is placed right at the end of the tail, next to her body.
What are the changes compared to her last tail?
The cup that fits on the end of her tail has been modified to be deeper on the dorsal-ventral side and is thinner in general. The flukes are thicker at the leading edges and thinner at the trailing edges and the main suspension strap is lined with non-slip foam and is held together with velcro. The main lateral struts have embedded polypropylene rods. The tail also has stabilizing cross-member straps connecting to the cup which result in a double-tripod design.
What are the future tail modifications?
We are going to modify this prototype by removing the cross-member straps. The new tail will have the main lateral struts hinged closer to the main suspension strap, so the stabilizing cross-member straps will not be needed.