September 19, 2011 07:15 PM

Winter the dolphin may have lost her tail, but she’s since gained the ability to inspire.

In 2005, the 3-month-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was found entangled in a crab trap off the Florida coast. The staff at Clearwater Marine Aquarium nursed the dolphin, named Winter, around the clock as she fought off a life-threatening infection that cost the mammal her tail. But losing the essential appendage put her in danger again – until clinician Dan Strezmpka came up with a unique solution and created a silicone prosthetic for Winter.

In an astonishing fight for her life, Winter survived, and the dolphin’s ability to adapt to a prosthesis has been a source of hope for thousands of disabled adults and children across the country, says Clearwater Marine Aquarium director David Yates. “Winter has changed the lives of people facing challenges.”

Winter’s story has also become a movie, Dolphin Tale, which opens in theaters Friday, Sept. 23. It stars Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and yes, Winter the dolphin, who plays herself.

Eleven-year-old Megan McKeon, of Fresno, Calif., says Winter’s success with an artificial tail motivated her to wear her own prosthetic leg, which she had avoided because it was bulky and uncomfortable.

“I didn’t like wearing my limb,” says Megan, who lost her left leg in a fire as an infant in Latvia, prior to being adopted by her American parents. “But Winter wears her tail, so it makes sense for me to wear my leg, so I can be an inspiration to others.”

The staff at Clearwater sees this kind of transformation among children with special needs on an almost daily basis. “Children have a unique and strong attraction to Winter,” says Yates. The dolphin’s strongest devotees include children coping with autism or limb loss caused by disease and accidents. Wounded veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan have also found inspiration from Winter. “Thousands of people come through here and see Winter, but many of the kids and adults with disabilities stay in touch with us on a regular basis,” says Yates.

A lucky few get treated to close encounters with Winter inside her pool, though those visits are restricted and generally brief. But children with disabilities take precedence, says Abby Stone, 31, a senior marine mammal trainer at the aquarium. The children often bring toys such as pool noodles, bat buoys and floating mats, which Winter tosses around her pool.

“There’s a real connection,” says Stone. “The kids are appreciative and happy and the time with Winter charges them up to face whatever challenges lie ahead. It’s remarkable.”

And once back at home, Winter fans like Megan, who is working with a newly designed prosthetic leg, keep up with the famous dolphin at the aquarium website, which is outfitted with a webcam trained on Winter’s pool. Says Megan, “I hope I get to see her again in person.”

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