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Apocalypse Meow
The arrest of a National Zoo scientist for trying to poison cats set off a fierce debate over whether cats are innocent and adorable or an ecological nightmare. By Luke Mullins
Illustration by Jesse Lenz.
Comments () | Published April 3, 2012

When the mysterious substance reappeared on Thursday, March 3, 2011, Frances Sterling decided something had to be done. Everything had been fine when she'd checked the cat food the previous evening. But by the next afternoon the food was covered in a yellow-and-white crumble, just as it had been nearly every day for weeks. She didn't know what the substance was, but it didn't look right.

Sterling has lived for a decade in the Park Square apartments, a 60-unit building across the street from Meridian Hill Park in DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood. For most of that time, she has cared for two cats--she named them Jolson and Mama--that live outside the building. Several times a day, she has placed dry cat food under the bushes on either side of the building's front door. Jolson would paw at Sterling's first-floor window when he was hungry. "I'm a sucker," says Sterling, who is 46.

In ten years of feeding the cats, she had never seen anything suspicious. Then in February of last year, she discovered several small bowls of what looked like antifreeze near the apartment's entrance. Around the same time, the yellowish-white substance began appearing on the cat food. No matter how often she cleared it away, it always returned.

By March 3, Sterling felt compelled to alert the authorities. She called the Washington Humane Society and reported that someone might be trying to poison the cats.

The complaint was routed to Daniel D'Eramo, a 26-year-old Humane Society law-enforcement officer. The Washington Humane Society enforces DC's animal-cruelty laws, and D'Eramo is one of four officers who investigate reports of animal abuse and refer the most serious cases for prosecution.

The Washington Humane Society gets 10 to 20 complaints of intentional cat poisoning a year, but investigators usually can't find enough evidence tying a suspect to a specific incident of abuse.

D'Eramo arrived at the Park Square apartments around 3:45 pm. He wasn't able to identify the substance on the cat food, but he took photographs and collected samples, which were sent to a lab in Michigan for analysis.

D'Eramo asked the property manager for permission to review footage from the security camera near the building's front door. The video showed that only one person had come near the cat food between the time when Sterling checked it at 7:24 pm on March 2 and when she discovered the substance at 1:20 pm the next day, according to D'Eramo. It was a dark-haired woman who walked up to the bushes, reached into her bag, and leaned over the cat food.

Using the video footage, D'Eramo made still photographs of the person in question. On April 21, he presented the pictures to the apartment's management staff and doorman. The employees identified the dark-haired woman as Nico Dauphiné.

"But there's no way she could have done it," an employee told D'Eramo. "She works at the zoo."

Dauphiné, 39, had moved into Park Square in November 2010 after landing a fellowship at the National Zoo. A few months later, she began sending e-mails to the property manager expressing concern about the cats outside the building. It "might be a good idea to let [Sterling] know that the cat feeding on the property outside is not allowed," Dauphiné wrote in an April 7 e-mail. "My hope is that this problem can be solved before it becomes bigger."

When D'Eramo called Dauphiné to ask her about the incident, she told him she knew nothing about the substance and said she had leaned over the food to clean it up, D'Eramo says.

But if Dauphiné was really trying to clean up the food, why did so much remain after she left? When he tried contacting her later, Dauphiné didn't return his e-mails or phone calls, D'Eramo says.

He plugged Dauphiné's name into Google, where he came across her scientific research and her controversial positions. This is starting to make sense, D'Eramo thought.

When the lab report came back, it identified the yellow substance as bromadiolone anticoagulant--rat poison. If ingested, it can cause bleeding in an animal's lungs, abdomen, urinary tract, even eyes. The death is painful.

Based largely on the security-camera evidence, Dauphiné was charged with attempted animal cruelty on May 11. She surrendered to police, spent a night in jail, and pleaded not guilty.

Once the charges were filed, the bur-den shifted to the US Attorney's office. D'Eramo assisted the lawyers in assembling evidence. Over the next several weeks, he was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from residents of Athens, Georgia, where Dauphiné had lived before moving to Washington. "By the end, I had a one-inch stack of paperwork and e-mails [from Athens residents] to forward to the US Attorney's Office," D'Eramo says. "It just sounded like there was a history of a problem."

Reports that a National Zoo employee had been charged with trying to poison feral cats appeared on Channel 4,, and the Associated Press newswire. As the story blasted around the Internet, Dauphiné was subjected to online attacks and death threats, her lawyer has said. "There is a place in hell for her," one commenter wrote on the Facebook page of a feral-cat group.


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  • I had heard of that woman in newscasts when she was first caught at her heinous crime. Every time I read or hear any of this ranting and raving about cats killing all the birds, I want to scream which serves no useful purpose. However, people are always looking for some other person or some animal responsible for whatever is "wrong." In this case, which I deal with many times every year, cats are blamed for problems created and continued by US. I HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US! Remember that? All the problems to wildlife are created and perpetuated by people and organizations, often wildlife and bird organizations in the case of blaming the cats. That's so easy! They simply will not allow themselves or others to step up to the plate and deal with the REAL problems. In the case of birds and other wildlife, we destroy their habitat, poison their food, hunt (often with lead ammunition), etc., and then blame the cats! When their index finger is pointing at the cats, they should remember their other fingers are pointing back at them, the real cause of all the problems. Even if they are doing nothing, they are NOT part of the solution which means they are part of the problem. But they should be trying to solve the REAL problem and all those bird and wildlife organizations collect lots of money and attention by attacking cats.

  • bird and dog lover

    f*n feral cats.. they are a menace and i dont know why cat lovers (idiots) are blind to the damage they do.
    cant compare to dogs, dogs stay indoors and are controllable when done right.
    cats are stupid and destroy native wildlife etc.

    not to mention i lost my 7 year budgie to a feral piece of shite cat.
    the cat is lucky i wasnt here when it happened, or i would have shot it.

  • Larry Roeder

    I want to thank you for your article. If the lady at the National Zoo did even half of what it seems, she is probably an echo-terrorist, certainly an immature person who should be prevented from contact with any animal, including birds. I've worked with animals all my life as an avocation, camels, horses, other animals, also was a Director in WSPA, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and now am a certified Virginia wildlife rehabilitator, which is a voluntary thing. I also happen to be a retired Diplomat with a speciality in disaster management.

    Little doubt that cats can kill, do kill wild life, that they are a threat to the ecology. When I had cats, they were kept inside; but to kill cats in order to articulate a policy of protecting birds shows a terrible lack of judgment, and a cruelty that is very sad; it is her action derived from that immaturity and cruelty which leads me to call her a terrorist.

    We can have an intelligent disagreement/ conversation about whether or not neuter programs work; but even if we disagree, why treat the cats in an inhumane manner? Why make them victims? Cats are not monsters, which is how Dauphine apparently say them. Euthanasia is by the way is NOT humane in many cases and is over-used in shelters because of a lack of resources. Let's be clear. There is nothing humane about killing a perfectly healthy cat. It did not ask for it circumstances. There is also nothing humane about stealing a pet from its owner.

    What we need instead of violence by the kill-shelters or by extremists like Dauphine is an intelligent conversation about policy. Dauphine should be ashamed of herself and has lost the right to work with any animal, including birds. But surely the rest of us can deal with the policy dispute in a mature, non-violent way that respects both science and public values.

    Larry Roeder

  • How to reduce feral-cat numbers THE-TNR-WAY by "natural attrition", but without traps & sterilizing them first:

    (or "The Way That *ALL* Stray-Cats Die")

    1. Aim your car for cats when it's safe for all else to do so.

    2. Put out poison for cats (Acetaminophen/Paracetamol (1-capsule generic tylenol) pain-relievers (the most cat-species specific), antifreeze, vermin-poisons, poisonous plants or animals -- the ways that all TNR'ed cats succumb to "attrition" by poisons).

    3. Infect them with deadly diseases.

    4. Turn your dogs or other large predators loose on them.

    5. Starve them to death.

    6. Let them die of thirst.

    7. Put them in heated boxes until they die of heat exhaustion (emulate hot weather).

    8. Throw them in freezers until they are dead (emulate a harsh winter).

    9. Scratch the cat's eyes and gash their skin to emulate a cat-attack so they slowly die of infections. (Justifiably the same way they destroy all native animals. Though that involves more skinning-alive and disemboweling-alive so the cat can enjoy their play-toy writhe and twitch to death. The longer it takes an animal to die of wounds the more a cat enjoys it. The cat-lovers themselves also greatly enjoy this, or they wouldn't let their cats do it.)

    10. Trap and drown.

    11. Shoot them.

    Can you think of more ways that *ALL* TNR'ed cats die?

    NONE of them die of old-age you know!

    Any of these are the "natural" ways that TNR'ed cats die, according to TNR-Advocates' own definition of how their cats die through "attrition", so TNR-advocates should have NO problems when you destroy their cats this way!


    It's how they're doing it! TO EVERY LAST ONE OF THEIR TNR CATS.

    If these methods are acceptable to all TNR-advocates then it's PERFECTLY okay for anyone else to do the same!

    If you kill their cats this way and they complain, they're just being whiny hypocrites. That's all.

    The ONLY difference in destroying them immediately in the manner that ALL TNR'ed cats die; instead of trapping and sterilizing them first; is that some money isn't going into an HSUS board-member's pocket, veterinarian's pocket, cat-food company CEO's pocket, or a drug-company CEO's pocket. That's the ONLY difference.

  • catBIRD

    I wish that cats and birds would eat Dauphines eyes, I bet she didn't have a boyfriend for a long long time:)

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Posted at 09:30 AM/ET, 04/03/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles