Smithsonian bird researcher is convicted of trying to poison cats
A postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo was found guilty Monday of attempting to poison cats in her northwest Washington neighborhood. Security cameras had caught Nico Dauphine, 38, standing over a bowl of cat food outside an apartment complex last March. She denied the charges and claimed she was just removing food to keep strays away. Prosecutors argued that she had taken rat poison out of a bag in her purse and was putting it on the food. (No cats ate the food.)
A District of Columbia Superior Court judge convicted her of attempted animal cruelty, a misdemeanor. She will be sentenced Nov. 21 for the crime, which carries a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Interestingly, Dauphine chose Billy Martin as her defense attorney -- the same lawyer who, also unsuccessfully, defended NFL quarterback Michael Vick on animal cruelty charges.
Dauphine resigned from her position at the bird center the same day as her conviction, a Smithsonian spokesperson said. Animal welfare advocates had called for her dismissal ever since she was first charged.
While she was at the bird center, she was studying how domestic cats affect wildlife. Smithsonian spokesperson Jen Zoon said: "She did not work with any of the Smithsonian's animals, and we do not feel that she posed any threat to the animals in the Smithsonian's collection."
Although this is a case of animal cruelty, not just a preference for birds over cats, Dauphine had published several papers decrying the killing of birds by cats, prosecutors noted.
An online search turns up a 2009 paper she coauthored on the impact of cats on birds, which states that roaming felines "are estimated to kill at least 1 billion birds every year in the United States."
"That calculation is so absurd," said Becky Robinson, president of the animal welfare organization Alley Cat Allies. "I don't think anyone knows what the numbers are, and I don't think anyone can calculate that."
The issue, Robinson says, is not whether cats are predators. "It's a question of whether they are having any impact. The devastating negative impact is coming from human activity."
While there are plenty of animal advocates and pet owners who love both cats and birds, there can be some tension between bird lovers and cat lovers over how much of a threat cats are to birds. Here in Los Angeles, the city Department of Animal Services is under injunction to halt supporting the practice of trapping, neutering and releasing (TNR) feral cats, pending an environmental review. Most animal welfare groups applaud the practice of TNR, saying it ultimately reduces the numbers of feral cats that roam streets, yards and parking lots. But a coation of bird preservation groups, including some local chapters of the Audubon Society, supported the city's halt of TNR, saying the practice is not reducing the number of cats living outside.
The debate over how best for cats and birds -- and people -- to live together will continue. But the deliberate killing of either species is never the answer.
Photo: Feral cats on the campus of Cal State Long Beach in July 2008. Credit: Diandra Jay / Long Beach Press Telegram