HIGHLANDS, N.J. - Federal wildlife officials are convinced science is on their side in the decision to leave a group of bottlenose dolphins in a frigid New Jersey river over the winter, even if it means they die.
But they didn't count on the 'Flipper factor': An intense, emotional attachment many people have toward dolphins, the highly intelligent, social mammals whose facial anatomy makes 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,' said Marlene Antrim of Hazlet, 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 are known to have died so far, and only five of the original 16 have remained in the Shrewsbury. Officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the other eight possibly returned to the open sea on their own, but they have no way to know for sure.
The head of a marine mammal rescue group said Monday he's afraid the last five may have died.
Ice has increased in the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, and no one has seen the dolphins since Thursday, said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. He said they were emaciated and weak when he saw them last Tuesday.
"I don't think they're alive anymore,' he said Monday. 'We probably won't see them until the spring when they wash up somewhere.'
NOAA has long said that trying to move the dolphins has its own risks and probably wouldn't ensure the animals' survival. Critics fear a repeat of 1993, when four dolphins died in the river when ice closed in on them and they drowned.