Dauphiné grew up in a small town on the California coast. Her father, a doctor, and her mother kept the house filled with pets. (Her father asked that Dauphiné's hometown and family members not be named due to concerns about safety.) Family pets included cats, rabbits, hamsters, and reptiles. But to Dauphiné, birds were special, says childhood friend Christine Mullen.
When she was a young girl, Dauphiné got a pet cockatiel, which she would later bring with her to college. In elementary school, she cried when her classmates took whacks at a bird-shaped piñata, Mullen says. Her compassion for animals extended beyond birds. Dauphiné became a vegetarian rather than support what she considered inhumane treatment of animals by the food industry.
Dauphiné was in her grade school's gifted-and-talented program and went on to Yale. While there, she opened a Saturday-evening soup kitchen for New Haven's homeless and convinced her musician friends to show up and entertain.
Hannah Silverstein, a college friend, once took a road trip with Dauphiné. "She would actually say a prayer every time we passed a road kill," Silverstein says. "It was painful for her to see animals in pain."
Dauphiné graduated from Yale in 1994 with a degree in religious studies. She joined the Peace Corps and spent four years in Africa, Micronesia, and the Caribbean. Dauphiné's home in the African nation of Gabon became infested with mice because she couldn't bring herself to kill them, Silverstein says.
After returning to the US, Dauphiné earned a master's degree in crop-and-soil science from Cornell, then enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Georgia. She was planning to focus on anthropology when she walked into Professor Robert Cooper's ornithology class in 2003, Cooper says.
As the course proceeded, "I realized that if I could work with birds professionally," Dauphiné later wrote in her dissertation, "well, why would I do anything else?"
At first, Dauphiné trapped cats only on her own property. But Athens had a big feral-cat population, and when friends asked for help removing cats from their apartment grounds, Dauphiné expanded her turf, Loke says. Others joined her cause. Tim Rose, an amateur birder, met Dauphiné through the local Audubon Society. After Dauphiné explained the dangers of cat predation, Rose began trapping with her.
"She enlightened me," Rose says. "I knew cats were a problem, but I didn't know the scope."
Dauphiné never demonized cats, which she insisted were only following their instincts to hunt, Rose says. Instead, she blamed pet owners who allowed their cats outdoors and the people who fed feral cats. Dauphiné always used humane traps to remove cats.
Conservation scientists say that pet owners should keep their cats inside and that outdoor cats should be taken off the streets, put up for adoption, or--when no alternative exists--euthanized.
Killing feral cats is "not only inhumane; it's cruel," says Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy group based in Bethesda. Robinson questions the validity of research showing cats' destructive impact on native wildlife, calling it "pseudo-science."
Ed Clark, meanwhile, says feral-cat advocates are blinded by their emotional response to cats. "They're flat-earth people," Clark says. "These people have walled themselves off and deliberately avoid anything that may contradict their worldview."
It's a ferocious debate. A University of Wisconsin wildlife ecologist received death threats in 2005 because he had published a study estimating that free-running cats kill 7.8 million songbirds annually in the state, if not more. And in 2006, Jim Stevenson, head of a Texas ornithological society, used a .22 caliber rifle to shoot and kill a feral cat that was hunting piping plovers. Stevenson was charged with animal cruelty; his trial resulted in a hung jury.
Stevenson, who also received death threats, doesn't regret his actions. "It's an ethic to protect the things that are uniquely American," he says. "Our natural heritage is being fed to cats."
Less than six months after Dauphiné trapped Keeney's cat, Keeney received an $85 fine for allowing Lily off his property without a leash--a violation of Athens law. The fine followed a complaint from Dauphiné to the authorities, Keeney says. A second $85 fine arrived later.
Then Lily disappeared again. Keeney had since married, and his new wife and stepchildren put up "missing cat" signs in the neighborhood. This time, Lily never returned.
Keeney was wrecked. "It was like a death of a family member," says Kim Keeney, his wife. "I can't tell you how hard it was for him to even get out of bed. He had lost his best friend." Although Roger Keeney has no evidence, he believes Dauphiné is responsible for Lily's disappearance.
When enough time had passed, Keeney brought another cat home. His two stepchildren--James and Alexis, then six and five--were crazy about Jake, the kitten. But Keeney soon encountered the same problems with Jake that he'd faced with Lily.
Jake, who had a collar, tried to escape the house at every opportunity. Because Keeney is blind, he couldn't stop the cat from running out the door. Kim, who has cerebral palsy and can't walk without assistance, tried to block Jake's path with her crutches. But it wasn't long before another $85 fine arrived. This fine also followed a complaint made by Dauphiné, Roger Keeney says. When he went to Dauphiné's house to discuss the issue, she refused to answer the door, he says.
The fine came at a difficult time for the family. Kim, a special-education teacher, was out of work. Roger was in graduate school, and his only income was from part-time work as a teacher's assistant. The couple couldn't afford more fines and knew they wouldn't be able to keep Jake inside. One evening after the children went to bed, Kim gave Jake to a friend who lived out in the country.
The next morning, Kim broke the news to the children: "Jake was not happy here, so we had to find him a better home." The children were devastated. Alexis had nightmares that Jake had been splattered by a car.
"I loved, loved, and loved him very much," Alexis later wrote in a letter to the Washington Humane Society, which was first made public by the blog Vox Felina. "He was so nice to us. He was nice to everyone else too."
Dauphiné was a familiar face at the Athens Area Humane Society, the local intake shelter for lost, abandoned, or trapped cats. She trapped and brought to the shelter seven cats in 2005, 15 in 2006, and 36 in 2007, according to Humane Society records. In 2008, she brought in 64 cats.
As an "open admission" shelter, the Humane Society accepted any cat for any reason. Upon intake, the shelter's staff made every effort to determine if a cat was someone's pet and, if so, to reunite it with the owner. Healthy cats that weren't reclaimed went up for adoption. Those that couldn't be "homed" were euthanized.
Unloading her traps at the shelter, Dauphiné sometimes commented on the dangers that outdoor cats posed to birds, says Lindsay Porter, the Humane Society's shelter manager. "She considered trapping outdoor cats to be a public service," Porter says.
Over time, Dauphiné's trapping caused concern among the Humane Society's employees. "The condition of the animals began to deteriorate as the intake increased," Porter says.
Dauphiné's friend Lora Loke disagrees with that claim. The cats Dauphiné trapped were always well cared for and given plenty of food and water, Loke says.