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More Inspiring, Life-Saving Stories
From AMMPA Marine Parks’ Dedicated Doctors

The movie Dolphin Tale brings to the big screen the true story of Winter, a severely injured dolphin who stranded off the Florida coast and received breakthrough medical care that allows her to swim with a prosthetic tail.

Other inspiring medical miracles, driven by extraordinary compassion for dolphins, whales, seals, sea lions, manatees and other marine animals, are happening at parks and aquariums around the world, noted Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.

Dolphin Tale is a poignant story because it is true and it illustrates the lengths to which marine mammal specialists go to care for these wonderful animals,” Menard said. “We hope the movie helps make people aware of the state-of-the art medical technologies used in modern marine parks.  Marine park veterinarians have pioneered the use of human medical technologies to effectively treat marine mammals, often working collaboratively with doctors for solutions.  These technologies also save the lives of animals, like Winter, who strand because of severe injuries.”

Some examples of how Alliance members have used medical technologies, originally developed for humans, to care for marine mammals include:

  • A California park adopted a sea lion that was shot in the face and left for dead by a fisherman. After a daring rescue and months of rehabilitation, a reconstructive surgeon donated his time to perform extensive surgery on the animal—the first of its kind.  Sgt. Nevis, named after the sheriff’s deputy who helped save him, is at home with his sea lion companions at the park and has demonstrated tremendous resiliency. (Six Flags Discovery Kingdom)

  • A medical research professor at the University of Pittsburgh saved Liko’s dorsal fin from amputation by adapting the latest techniques in human regenerative medicine and applying an “extracellular matrix” to help regrow soft tissue cartilage cells and heal a deep tear to the base of the dolphin’s fin. Combined with pioneering LED (light-emitting diode) therapy and a custom-fitted dorsal fin sling, the extracellular matrix patch repaired and restored the dolphin’s damaged dorsal fin. (Dolphin Quest Hawaii)

  • A West Coast marine park’s senior veterinarian partnered with a university medical center’s chief of nephrology to do the first successful dialysis on a dolphin. The nephrologist later performed the first endoscopic laser lithotripsy procedure to break up Dottie’s kidney stones. (Sea World San Diego)

  • Nori, an endangered manatee, is again swimming in Florida waters after a Florida park used physician Henry Heimlich’s flutter valve to heal a large tear in her lung caused by a boat strike.  Heimlich developed the valve after seeing a solder die in World War II from a gunshot wound.  The valve has saved the lives of three manatees to date.  (Miami Seaquarium)

  • A stranded harp seal, Pequot, is eating without pain after gastroenterologists performed an endoscopy to remove rocks from his stomach. Ocular exams confirmed that Pequot was congenitally blind.  After four months of rehabilitation, he joined other seals at a zoo and is thriving.  (Mystic Aquarium)

  • Just as with pregnant humans, ultrasounds are conducted regularly on expectant marine mammals to confirm and monitor pregnancies and to help ensure healthy births and healthy mothers. Also, marine mammal veterinarians commonly use x-rays, EKGs, radiographs, endoscopes, and bronchoscopes to obtain accurate diagnoses and save animals’ lives.

Because dolphins and other marine mammal cannot tell the doctor where it hurts, Menard said animals in Alliance member facilities are trained to voluntarily participate in routine physical examinations and sampling procedures. 

This dedicated and pioneering veterinary care explains why dolphins in Alliance-accredited parks and aquariums live almost twice as long as their counterparts in the ocean and sea lions can live between two to three times longer in human care, Menard said.

The catalyst for much of today's progress in marine mammal care is Dr. Sam Ridgway, who is the preeminent marine mammal scientist and the first veterinarian for the Navy Marine Mammal Program.  Over 45 years ago, he pioneered the development of anesthesia for dolphins which today supports transformative surgeries on animals.

Like Winter’s home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, many Alliance parks and aquariums worldwide are members of government stranding programs and spend millions of dollars annually responding, rescuing and recovering, rehabilitating, releasing, and providing permanent care for nonreleasable stranded marine mammals.  Rehabilitating stranded marine mammals is a time-intensive commitment that often requires 24-hours-a-day care.  Over a recent five-year period, members responded to more than 2,900 stranded marine mammals.  Of these, almost 1,500 animals were treated for injuries and disease at member facilities. 

“Marine mammal experts at the Alliance’s 48 accredited marine parks, aquariums, and zoos care deeply about the wellbeing of all marine mammals. They are doing groundbreaking work to ensure that injured, stranded animals, like Winter, can live long lives even with physical challenges,’’ said Menard.

People who visit accredited marine parks, aquariums, and zoos are supporting these groundbreaking efforts to help marine mammals while learning about the need to protect marine animals and their ocean environments.

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The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums is an international association of marine life parks, aquariums, zoos, research facilities, and professional organizations dedicated to the highest standards of care for marine mammals and to their conservation in the wild through public education, scientific study, and wildlife presentations. Collectively, the Alliance and its membership represent the greatest body of experience and knowledge about marine mammal husbandry. ammpa@aol.com