HIGHLANDS, N.J. – Federal wildlife officials are convinced science is on their side in the decision to leave a family of bottlenose dolphins in a frigid New Jersey river over the winter, even if it means letting them die.
But they didn't count on the "Flipper factor" — an intense, emotional attachment many people have toward dolphins, the highly intelligent, social animals whose facial expressions make them look like they're smiling.
When science and sentiment collide, the result is what has been playing out at the Jersey shore since June — a battle over whether wild animals need humans' help to survive, or whether they should be left alone to let nature take its course.
"They're like children," Marlene Antrim of Hazlet said of the animals. She has circulated "Save The Dolphins!" fliers in businesses near the Shrewsbury River, north of Asbury Park and the central Jersey shore. "They're frightened."
Three dolphins have died so far, and only five of the original 16 remain in the Shrewsbury. It is unclear what happened to the other eight. Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say it's possible they left the river on their own and returned to the open sea, but they have no way to know for sure.
The agency says trying to move the remaining dolphins is risky and probably wouldn't work. Critics fear a repeat of 1993, when four dolphins died in the river when ice closed in on them and they drowned.
"There is a very strong connection a lot of people feel with the animals," said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for NOAA. "If you believe that these animals are trapped or can't get out, then I can completely understand why people want us to move them. Our real job is to help people understand that we don't think they're trapped, and that actually trying to move them can cause fatalities rather than improving their prospects for survival."
Antrim berated federal officials for refusing to allow marine mammal rescue groups to either coax, scare or carry the dolphins back out to sea.
"I wish they would spend a night in that river and feel how cold the water is," she said.
This isn't the first time emotions have run high over perceived threats to wild animals and whether or not to try to save them. In June 2001, a 50-ton right whale dubbed Churchill became tangled in fishing gear in the Atlantic Ocean off Massachusetts, spurring a three-month rescue effort that included seven unsuccessful tries to save the animal.
Rescue groups and the federal government spent more than $250,000 on the effort, which failed when Churchill died that September.
Frady was part of the NOAA handling of that case, as well.
"This went on for months and months," she said. "People from all over the world were calling about the whale."
The phenomenon isn't solely an American one; in 1985, the Soviet Union sent an icebreaker to free thousands of white beluga whales that had become trapped by ice in the Senyavin Strait, about 130 miles from the Alaskan coast. Helicopters and experts were brought in, and local villagers brought frozen fish to feed the whales.
Royal navy divers in England freed a humpback whale from fishing gear in 2006 near the Isle of Skye, and just before Christmas last year, dozens of volunteers in McBride, Canada, spent a week digging a passageway through snowdrifts to rescue a pair of starving, ice-covered horses stuck on a mountain.
Earlier this month, NOAA said it expects some or all of the last five New Jersey dolphins will either die or strand themselves as winter progresses. They said that is a natural phenomenon that should be allowed to play itself out, even if the remaining animals perish.
Many scientists agree, saying the dolphins have to be left to their own devices and instincts.
"From past attempts to rescue these animals, there has been more harm done to the animals," said Thomas Armbruster, director of the Sandy Hook Sea Life Foundation. "These animals should be left alone."
Frank Baran, a local resident who sometimes stops by the river to look for the dolphins, endorses that view.
"They know what they're doing," he said. "They've been here a long time, and they'll be around for a long time."