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'Dolphin Tale': Who are Winter's real-life friends?

September 26, 2011 |  5:00 am

Dophin tale

If you caught "Dolphin Tale" in theaters this weekend and stayed for the end credits, you saw Winter swimming with some human friends who share similar challenges. We spoke to several of them to find out more about their stories.

When Maja Kazazic moved to Florida 11 years ago, she quickly became a regular visitor to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a facility that rescues wounded fish, mammals and other animals, nurses them back to health and, when possible, releases them back to the wild. But it wasn’t just her soft spot for dolphins that attracted her to the aquarium. It was the fact that “I feel like a bit of a rescue myself,” said Kazazic, a website designer.

A native of Bosnia, Kazazic was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in 1993, at the age of 16. The six friends with her all died; Kazazic's left leg was amputated (without anesthesia) in a makeshift hospital. She developed an infection; the U.S. government arranged for her to leave the country, and she underwent rehabilitation in a hospital in Maryland. But she had to endure multiple operations and now uses an artificial leg.  “I ended up being a quilt,” she said.

At the aquarium, Kazazic found a particularly kindred spirit — a plucky bottlenose dolphin named Winter — nearly six years ago. At just a few months old, Winter had to have her tail amputated after she became entangled in a crab trap and was injured. Two prosthetic experts from Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics (which has numerous branches across the country) came to Winter’s rescue, creating the first artificial limb of sorts for a dolphin. They have continued to create prosthetic tails for the animal as she has grown.

Winter’s story quickly became an international sensation. “She has inspired 3-year-old kids and 99-year-old men,” said David Yates, the aquarium’s chief executive. “We have had a lot of soldiers who have lost limbs or have had some type of brain injury [be inspired by her]. The reason why Winter inspires so many people is that it’s an easily relatable story. You look at Winter. She’s little. She has had massive issues. But she’s happy. She’s not cowering in the corner.”

Now Winter is starring as herself in the movie “Dolphin Tale,” which opened Friday. The end of the film features some clips of Kazazic and other real-life fans of the mammal interacting with her.

“I remember seeing her" for the first time, said Kazazic, whose company designed Winter’s website. “I instantly connected with her missing a tail and me missing a leg, being rescued…. She reminded me so much of me. She was like me in dolphin form. I would go see her once or twice a week. It was sort of my refuge.”

Kazazic, who had been very athletic before her accident, tried to lead as normal a life as possible with her prosthetic leg, but whenever she did anything too strenuous, such as playing tennis, she would experience pain and be out of commission for several days afterward. “I was hitting a wall,” she admitted. Her doctors told her that she had to accept the situation and live with the prosthesis she had. “They just kept telling me, 'Your injuries are too severe' ” for her to ever have a perfect fit.

One day, she was feeling particularly blue about her leg, so she went to visit Winter. “I was sitting there and Winter was there. The next thing I know one of the trainers comes out with this tail in her hand. Winter comes up to her and they put K-Y Jelly on the tail and Winter is off swimming. I am looking at a dolphin swimming with a tail, so in that split second I say to myself, ‘Whoever is making her tail needs to make me [a prosthesis].’ I made an appointment with Hanger Prosthetics. And one week later I was on the tennis court pain-free.

Megan McKeon, 11, says her life has also changed thanks to Winter. The sixth-grader was born in Lativa and now lives in central California with her adoptive parents; she was 5 months old when her birth mother dropped a cigarette into her crib, badly burning her. Her left leg was amputated in a series of nearly two dozen rather unprofessional operations.

After an intern at the hospital contacted a journalist friend, Megan’s story and her need for an adoptive home outside of the country made it into newspapers. An American couple who happened to be working in Lativa at the time read her story and adopted her.

Megan had a prosthesis but found it too uncomfortable to wear.  Then two years ago, she had a consultation with the company that worked with Winter.

“Kevin Carroll, the vice president of Hanger, felt my hip and said, You have 2 inches of femur we didn’t know about.' So he said, 'I think I can make you a leg because I made a tail for a dolphin. I think I might be able to use the same material on you as I used on Winter.' So the next thing I know I was in Los Angeles getting a new prosthetic. I was so happy with it. It’s amazing what people think of and what they make. I have had this about two years now.”

Megan got a chance to meet Winter last November. “I was so excited because I had never met a dolphin with a disability like that,” she said. “I felt like she was my soul mate. She was really sweet. I got to put her tail on her.” In April, she returned to Clearwater to swim with Winter for the movie.

Kazazic, who volunteers at the aquarium, also swims with Winter. She recalled the two of them quickly bonded the first time swimming together on their backs. “She was spraying me,” Kazazic said. “I have gone in with her quite a few times. She’s used to me. When I go in she knows who I am. It’s almost like she’s saying, ‘Hi, old friend.’ Then she starts playing.”


'Dolphin Tale' premiere photo gallery

Treading new waters with a dolphin's tail

— Susan King

Photo: Maja Kazazic swimming with Winter. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

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