Wildlife Biologist Found Guilty of Attempting to Poison Feral Cats

Michael covers science news related to scientific employment and training at Science Careers.

A former researcher at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Migratory Bird Center has been found guilty of misdemeanor attempted cruelty to animals for sprinkling poison atop cat food intended for feral cats living in Washington, D.C. Yesterday's verdict, delivered by a judge in the D.C. Superior Court, marks the latest turn in the prosecution of wildlife biologist Nico Dauphiné, an outspoken advocate of the need to protect bird populations from feral cats.

Dauphiné had denied the allegation, but lost her case after a 3-day trial before a judge. She is scheduled to be sentenced later this month. The zoo accepted her resignation yesterday.

According to court proceedings, Dauphiné was arrested in May after residents living in an apartment building adjacent to the Meridian Hill Park in Washington noticed that the food they regularly left out to feed area cats would sometimes become covered by a white powdery substance overnight. One of these residents, Rachel Sterling, contacted officials at the Washington Humane Society. Representatives from the society tested the substance and determined that it was poison.

In conjunction with local police, the society staked out the food bowls and regularly reviewed footage recorded by security cameras at the apartment building. The footage introduced during the trial appears to show Sterling and her husband filling the bowls with a new batch of food on the afternoon of 2 March. That night around 10:30 p.m., Dauphiné can be seen approaching the bowl, pulling something out of a small bag, reaching down toward the food twice, and then leaving the scene. The next morning, police found the food covered with the same white powder as before, which tested positive as poison. Prosecutors said the surveillance footage recorded no one but Sterling, her husband, and Dauphiné in the vicinity of the food bowls that evening.

Dauphiné's bench trial began 24 October. In addition to the videotaped evidence, prosecutors also introduced evidence that Dauphiné has a long history advocating in academic literature for the control of feral cat populations in order to protect native bird populations. In one paper, in the 2009 Proceedings of the Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics, Dauphiné and co-author Robert J. Cooper, a wildlife biologist at the University of Georgia in Athens, argue that feral cats kill upwards of 1 billion birds in the United States every year. They also argue that the "trap-neuter-release" model for population control, which is advocated by many animal rights organizations, does a poor job of managing feral cat populations.

Yesterday, Judge Truman A. Morrison III noted in his remarks that, during Dauphiné's testimony during the trial, she declined to discuss whether she agreed with various academic papers on which she was listed as an author, and said she wasn't familiar with many of their statements about the danger that feral cats pose to birds. In delivering his verdict, Morrison said that the notion that Dauphiné wouldn't be familiar with papers she authored or co-authored "doesn't have the ring of the truth." He also "found that her inability, indeed her unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings … undermined her credibility."

The defense argued that the surveillance footage merely shows Dauphiné removing food from the bowl and that an unseen perpetrator could have added poison out of view of the camera. Morrison, however, said that claim didn't rise to the level of raising reasonable doubt.

Sentencing is scheduled for 21 November. According to the case's prosecutor, U.S. Assistant Attorney Kevin Chambers, there are no typical sentencing guidelines for attempted animal cruelty, but the maximum penalty is 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine.

Posted in Environment