Winter’s Real Tale—Life for a Dolphin Star Is Not Easy, but Is It Exploitation?

New video footage shows Winter appearing to be frightened or stressed in her tank at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Photo: Crimfants / Flickr

Sep 28, 2013· 4 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Do animals pay a price for fame?

Consider the case of young Winter, the internationally known dolphin who lost her flukes (tail) after a crab-trap accident and was outfitted with a prosthetic tail at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA). Hollywood couldn’t resist her saga, turning it into the popular movie Dolphin Tale, and the upcoming sequel, Dolphin Tale II.

But as a glamorous film star, little Winter has led a rather rough life. After the ordeal of her entrapment, in 2005, she was taken to CMA for recovery. Deemed “unfit” for return to the ocean, Winter’s fate was sealed: She would spend the rest of her life in a small tank surrounded by gawking tourists and blaring music.

Now, new videos posted on YouTube show Winter appearing to cower in a corner of her tank, looking stressed, nervous, or frightened, “sitting” on her amputated peduncle. She appears to be next to a door to another tank, as if she wants out. Tourists can be heard talking about how “cute” it is that she is “resting,” and what a great shot they can get of her deformity.

After Dolphin Tale was released, in 2011, Winter became one of those overnight sensations that periodically sweep the culture. Families flocked to CMA to see the celebrated cetacean and revenues exploded, especially the following year. In 2012, CMA attracted more than 750,000 visitors, a stunning increase over 2011, when some 200,000 people visited.

Winter, to be blunt, is a cash cow for CMA. Aquarium officials did not respond to emails seeking answers to several questions, including the cost of Winter’s rehabilitation, and whether CMA had recouped those expenses through ticket sales, film-rights, licensing fees and merchandise such as a dolphin plush toy with removable tail ($22.95).

These days, it seems, it’s all about Winter.

“It all began with Winter!...The most famous dolphin in the world!” beams the aquarium’s website, which is, yes, “Come and visit Winter...she may have lost her tail, but she'll capture your heart!” There is even a “Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure” in Clearwater, a “fun and educational exhibit (that) will take you inside the movie,” including “re-built scenes, movie images, and a variety of actual props used in Dolphin Tale.”

CMA, now that it nearly quadrupled attendance in one year, is not done. The aquarium is undertaking an ambitious, $14.5 million expansion, including construction of a new facility in downtown Clearwater that, “Will allow us to accommodate another 250,000 visitors a year to our marine rescue center, added to the 750,000 who visited in 2012,” the website says. The 200,000-square-foot building will be “the primary tourism and education components of CMA’s mission, including resident animals such as Winter.”

And that’s what really rankles anti-captivity activists. The primary component of CMA’s mission, they point out, should neither be tourism, nor even education. It should be rehabilitation.

That was in fact, the aquarium’s original mission, but it seems to have since been replaced by one that puts more of a focus on revenue—and therein lies the problem.

“We are a unique facility, specializing in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sick or injured marine animals,” the website says, underscoring CMA’s original purpose. “All the animals that come through our doors arrive because they were suffering from an illness or severe injury in the wild,” the website explains. If the rescued animal is “unable to be released back into the wild, it becomes a permanent member of the CMA family, and lives here to serve as an ambassador for their species.”

Gigi Glendinning, who runs the Philadelphia-based humane education group, 22 Reasons, says CMA “sold out, and sold out quickly. They have moved far away from their main mission.” It had been “a rundown facility desperate for money,” before Winter became famous, she says. “Now it’s just about more revenue for them. They even make Winter do paintings, which they sell for $79.00. Dolphins don’t want to paint, they want to chase fish in the ocean. This is pure exploitation. Are they so desperate for dollars that they need to insult Winter’s intelligence? I know for sure they are underestimating ours.”

Glendenning found the YouTube videos disturbing. “There was nowhere for her to go; they don’t want to give the dolphins places to hide because then guests wouldn’t be able to always see them.” Most sanctuaries, she notes, “aren’t even open to the public, and they manage to raise funds to support the animals. The few that are open, provide dens and hideouts, and you don’t see the animals if they choose to be hidden.”

Dr. Lori Marino, of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, calls the videos, “Really pathetic. She is clearly cowering in the corner trying to get away from the crowds. On the first video you can hear the person off-camera say that she looks sad! It was that obvious. If the main pool were open, I’m sure she would move into it to get away from the noise and commotion.”

While not sure of the significance of Winter sitting on her tail, “other than to prop herself up,” Marino is certain that, “the most important aspect of this video is that she is trying to get away and has no escape. That must be tremendously stressful.”

So what should happen to Winter? Of course, she could not be released in the open ocean, critics acknowledge, but she could live out her life (some bottlenose live up to 50 years) in the tranquil comfort of a netted-off seapen, perhaps near Clearwater, where dolphins rescued by CMA, but not suitable for release, could live as close to nature as possible. CMA could still charge visitors to view the dolphins, at a quiet, respectful distance, who would no longer have to perform to blasting music. For Winter, it would be a vast improvement over spending her life in an aquarium downtown, critics say, like some side-show attraction, no matter how beloved.

“CMA could’ve done this the right way, with a seapen, and still made money,” Glendinning says. “They underestimate the compassion of the general public to support their efforts without making Winter paint, swim with people, or listen to music.”

Glendinning recently visited The Wild Animal Sanctuary, outside Denver, “where you learn a lot about exotic animals, without putting them on special display, and without invading their territory.” The sanctuary has a one-mile-long platform, 42 feet in the air. You need binoculars, but the animals barely know you are there. The average enclosure is 20 acres, thousands of times bigger than Winter’s tank.

Dolphin Tale reminds one of another hit film, Free Willy, in which the title character returns to his home in the sea. It moved fans so much that a successful campaign was launched to retire the orca who played Willy, Keiko, to a seapen in Iceland.

“Choosing to romanticize the connection between the boy and Winter, entices and encourages people to swim with dolphins,” Glendinning says of Dolphin Tale, “something that has proven to be a bad idea for both parties, and directly undermines CMA’s mission.”

At the end of Dolphin Tale, Winter goes for a swim in the bay, though it’s clear she will not be released. This poor, traumatized actor-animal has arguably generated millions of dollars in revenue for CMA, and grossed another $95 million in movie-ticket sales. Doesn’t she, as well as her rescued dolphin companions, deserve a nice, early retirement in the sea?