For marine biologist Diane Mitchell Young ’05, the 2011 megahit movie Dolphin Tale offers more than just the inspirational story of one real-life dolphin, Winter, who survived with the help of a prosthetic tail.
“Yes, Winter is one very special story,” says Young, a biology graduate, who led the effort to rehabilitate the injured dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), Florida. “But, more important, she is a poster child for the many animals that are affected in a negative way by human activity in the environment.”
In December 2006, Young met Winter, a 3-month-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, after the marine animal became entangled in a crab trap. Winter was transported to CMA—a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life—for treatment of the extensive injuries she had sustained.
During Winter’s round-the-clock rehabilitation over several months, she lost her tail and two vertebrae adjacent to the tail. Later, as a result of the herculean efforts of the CMA team and the innovation of Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., the dolphin fully recovered, swimming with the aid of a prosthetic tail.
The dolphin’s amazing adjustment to life with a disability attracted national attention.
“People around the world have been inspired by Winter. Veterans, who lost a leg in combat. Children, who didn’t want to wear their hearing aid because they were ashamed they were different,” she recalls. “They all heard Winter’s story and were encouraged.”
Young, who was CMA’s director of animal care, became aware of the Warner Bros. Pictures/Alcon Entertainment movie just prior to leaving CMA for a post at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, Md.
“I was on call 24-7 [during Winter’s recovery],” she says. “When I left CMA, that chapter of my life ended. Then one day, I was walking though the mall and saw a poster for the movie. Having lived the experience, it was odd to think of it as a major motion picture.”
In late October 2010, Young returned to CMA during the filming of the movie to see her former protégée in her starring role. “Although an animatronic Winter was used during the filming, Winter did a lot of the scenes herself,” explains Young. “For every scene they did, there were hours of preparation to train Winter to do what the movie script called for.”
Although most of the film is “fictionalized,” Young says it’s important to realize Winter is a very real animal that sustained very real injuries. Winter survived because of an organization devoted to the rescue and rehabilitation of all marine animals. “We need to take care of animals that have been negatively impacted by our activity,” she says.
Most recently, Young was employed as a marine mammal trainer and environmental enrichment coordinator at the National Aquarium. There, she was responsible for working with dolphins—both maintaining existing behaviors and training new behaviors used in medical treatment, breeding, and the aquarium’s shows. In June 2011, she voluntarily left her post just prior to the birth her first son, Tyler, with husband Matthew Young ’05.