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Imagine trying to row a boat using sticks instead of oars. That’s similar to the plight of Winter the dolphin. Diane Mitchell ’05has been working closely with the Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin in its rehabilitation at Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) in Clearwater, Fla.Winter was just three months old when she was entangled in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral. She was rescued and transported to CMA.“When she came in, she had deep wounds on both sides of her mouth, across the tongue, under both of the pectoral fins, and on her tail,” explains Mitchell, a biology graduate and environmental science minor at Lafayette and manger of animal care operations/stranding coordinator at CMA.

It took many hands and hard work to keep Winter alive. For weeks, Mitchell, staff, and volunteers had to support the young dolphin in the water 24 hours a day because she couldn’t swim. And since she was still nursing at the time of her stranding, CMA staff had to make up a formula of vitamins, medicine, and goat fat that would sustain her and teach her to feed from a bottle. Winter needed to be fed every two hours around the clock.

“We also had to take her out of the water and place her on mats and clean her wound every day, which was probably very painful for her, but it helped clear up all of the dead tissue and heal her wound,” Mitchell says. “I would say it took about four months for that to completely heal. In the process, she lost her whole tail and two vertebrae in her peduncle [tail stalk] area. It literally just fell off by itself.”

Once the tissue was confirmed to be dead, staff helped to clear that skin out to prevent infection. Eventually, Winter gained the strength to swim on her own. When she came to CMA with her tail on, she weighed 75 pounds. When her tail fell off and she was sick, she went down to 66 or 67 pounds. Now she’s up to 110 pounds and healthy.

Typically, dolphins move their bodies up and down to generate momentum from their fluke, which is the broad surface used to generate the momentum to swim or jump. According to Mitchell, Winter swims by moving her body side-to-side, but she can’t jump out of the water. She resides in CMA’s main pool with several other dolphins in about 15 feet of water and has no problem diving to the bottom.

In conjunction with researchers and veterinarians worldwide, CMA is studying whether Winter would benefit from a prosthetic tail.

“It might be the best thing for her, but it’s all in the research stage,” Mitchell says. “We have to make sure that if we secure a tail it’s not going to harm her in any way. We could put a tail on her and she might not want anything to do with it.”

According to Mitchell, there have been only two other dolphins in the world that have had prosthetic tails, but both were adults and had part of a tail to which the prosthetic device could attach.

“They also had a lot more time to swim normally, so it wasn’t as big a transition as Winter would have,” she explains, adding that because she is young, Winter would probably need three or four tails throughout her life to accommodate her growth.

Winter’s story and CMA’s work have received a good deal of media attention. It has been quite an initiation to the new position for Mitchell, who first worked with CMA as an intern the summer prior to her senior year at Lafayette.

“My internship was in the education department helping with summer camps,” explains Mitchell, a native of Bath, Pa. “During my senior year, I was sending out resumes and contacted my mentor from CMA to ask if he knew of any openings at the aquarium or in the area. He offered me a part-time job in education to teach summer camps for a couple of months.”

Mitchell worked her way into animal care by taking on assignments such as cleaning cages. In February, she was offered a full-time animal care position, which she says was second in line for the department working under the veterinarian. The veterinarian eventually moved to more of a consulting role and Mitchell took over as manger of animal care operations/stranding coordinator.

In this role, she oversees the operations of the sea turtle and marine mammal departments, and the care of any stranded animals that are on-site. She manages nine staff members and works with the executive director of CMA on things the aquarium needs to improve.

“In addition, I do dolphin training and if there is a stranding, I go out with my team to rescue the animal,” Mitchell adds. “CMA is a fairly small place and it’s not as showy as some of the other facilities because it’s a working hospital. All of the animals we have on display for the public to see are animals that we rescued and rehabilitated.”

CMA has four permanent dolphins, more than 30 sea turtles, and three river otters.

Despite being busy, Mitchell returned to campus for the first Lafayette-Lehigh football game following graduation. In addition to the comeback win by the Leopards, the weekend became more exciting when her then-boyfriend and Matthew Young ’05 proposed to her.

Mitchell credits Lafayette with giving her the education and skills necessary to succeed in her job at CMA. She was challenged by her academic work in the biology department, and the liberal arts education she received helped her develop writing and critical-thinking skills. Mitchell adds that playing softball for three years also necessitated strong time-management skills.

“Working in this type of environment, you have to get so much done, but things also keep popping up throughout the day. I have to deal with them quickly and move on,” she says. “I think being a student-athlete helped me with time management and organizational skills, and one of the reasons I got this position is that I did have all of those skills that I acquired through Lafayette.”

More information on Winter and photos are available on CMA’s web site.

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