The media attention was fueled in part by intrigue: Did Dauphiné do it? And if so, why would a scientist who'd devoted her life to animals want to put a cat through such a horrible death? But the story also stirred up longstanding animosity between conservation scientists and feral-cat advocates. Scientists argue that feral cats must sometimes be euthanized to protect other wildlife, while feral-cat groups insist no cat should ever be killed. "For the people who care about cats, this is like the abortion debate," says Pamela Jo Hatley, a Florida lawyer and wildlife advocate.
Dauphiné's current lawyer, Molly Cannon, advised Dauphiné not to comment for this story.
In the fall of 2005, Roger Keeney's cat went missing. Lily, a female Siamese, was more than just a pet. After Keeney lost his vision in a farm-equipment accident in 1990, he came to rely on Lily to alert him when someone was at the door or when he'd accidentally left the stove on. Lily was an indoor/outdoor cat, but it wasn't like her to stay out this long. Keeney went to bed worried.
When Lily hadn't returned by the next morning, Keeney opened his back door and called her name. To his surprise, Lily cried out in return. Keeney could hear that she was nearby, but for some reason she didn't come home. Keeney was confused. The eight-year-old daughter of a woman who was staying with him went to retrieve the cat.
The child followed the cries to the next-door neighbor's back yard, where she found Lily stuck in a cat trap that had been baited with wet cat food. The child carried the trap to Keeney, who freed Lily and tossed the cage over the fence into his neighbor's yard.
Keeney then went over to find out why in God's name someone would trap his pet. He pounded on the front door, but no one answered. Keeney had always found this neighbor odd. She had allowed her lawn to explode into a jungle of bushes and tree branches--vegetation so dense you could hardly make out the house.
The neighbor, Nico Dauphiné, had a lean frame and a pretty smile. She had bought a house on this quiet street in Athens in 2004, while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Georgia. A nature lover, Dauphiné had planted trees and shrubs around her house, creating an environment that would attract native wildlife, says Lora Loke, a University of Georgia classmate. As it flourished, the National Wildlife Federation certified the yard as an official wildlife habitat. Seventy-eight bird species--including ruby-throated hummingbirds, red-breasted grosbeaks, and yellow-rumped warblers--were seen there, Dauphiné later wrote in a report.
Dauphiné was friendly with the neighborhood children, and one kid sometimes showed up at her house with injured birds that the child's pet cat had attacked, Loke says.
Dauphiné had never given much thought to cats' impact on birds and other wildlife, Loke says. But looking out into her back yard, she noticed that her refuge had attracted a predator. "I observed a single cat move into [my] yard and kill all the other animals there over a period of months, decapitating but often not eating them," Dauphiné later wrote in an op-ed.
Over the last 30 years, Ed Clark has seen up close the less adorable nature of cats. In 1982, Clark cofounded the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which has become one of the nation's leading wildlife hospitals. Based 140 miles southwest of DC in Waynesboro, Virginia, the center's veterinarians have treated more than 55,000 sick or injured wild animals--everything from black bears and bald eagles to box turtles and baby mice. Its veterinary hospital has state-of-the-art tools such as digital x-ray machines and endoscopic surgery equipment. If an injured animal's life can be saved anywhere, this is the place.
The most common causes of injuries among animals admitted to the center are vehicle collisions and attacks by cats. Of the two, cat attacks are far more deadly, Clark says. That's because bacteria in cats' mouths and claws are toxic enough to kill an animal unless antibiotics are given within eight hours.
"A car has got to hit an animal pretty good to kill it; a cat just has to break the skin," Clark says. Eighty percent of cat-attack victims admitted to the center die. "Even here, in the hospital with the best wildlife vets in the country," Clark says.
One in five injured animals admitted to the center is a cat victim, Clark says. From 2000 to 2008, cat attacks accounted for 55 percent of the center's injured chipmunks, 22 percent of its injured flying squirrels, and 14 percent of its injured birds. The data reflects only "confirmed" cat attacks, in which the injured animal was actually seen in a cat's mouth or paws.
Clark himself owns five cats. But after seeing their impact on wildlife, he no longer lets them outside. "Outdoor cats have the same effect as a biological pollutant," he says.
Agile and efficient hunters, cats will kill prey whether they're hungry or not. Feral cats have caused the extinction of bird, mammal, and reptile species around the world. It's impossible to know exactly how many birds are killed each year by cats in the US, but the American Bird Conservancy says 500 million is a conservative estimate.
Scientists are particularly concerned about what this might mean for migratory birds, which play a key ecological role by dispersing seeds, pollinating flowers, and controlling insects.
After watching one cat decimate her yard's ecosystem, Dauphiné began looking for ways to protect the birds, Loke says. Dauphiné discovered that it was legal in Athens to trap any cat on her property and bring it to an animal shelter, according to Loke. She got a humane cat trap, learned how to use it, and set it in her back yard.
Because Lily didn't have a collar, Dauphiné thought she was a feral cat, not someone's pet, Loke says. But shortly after the incident, Dauphiné received an angry letter from Tiffany Chapman, the woman who was staying with Keeney.
"I will get a B.B. Gun and sit here and shoot [birds] if our cat disappears again," Chapman wrote. Dauphiné was unshaken; her efforts to protect wildlife from cats only intensified.