By 2008, Dauphiné again expanded her footprint by trapping on privately owned land without permission, according to the Humane Society. Porter says the Humane Society reported this violation of Athens law to the animal-control department, but nothing ever came of the complaints.
The shelter couldn't find homes for all of the cats Dauphiné brought in and had to euthanize most of them. Seeing so many cats put down demoralized the staff, Porter says: "We became a facility that euthanizes cats, not a Humane Society."
Dauphiné became an expert on cat predation. She attended conferences, met the field's leading scientists, and published literature. She was an outspoken critic of an approach to feral-cat management known as "trap-neuter-return," or TNR.
Feral cats live in groups called colonies, which tend to collect around food sources, such as a dumpster outside a fast-food restaurant or the home of someone who leaves food out each night. In a TNR colony, each feral cat is trapped and taken to a veterinarian to be sterilized and vaccinated. Afterward, adult ferals are returned to their original colonies and fed regularly by volunteers. Kittens--which can be socialized--are put up for adoption.
Even feral-cat advocates acknowledge the need to reduce the number of cats living outdoors. TNR is designed to accomplish this through attrition, which proponents argue is more humane than euthanasia.
Neutering can decrease the nuisances--such as catfighting--that often accompany feral colonies. And there's anecdotal evidence that the TNR approach can sharply reduce feral-cat populations. A colony in Newburyport, Massachusetts, that started with more than 300 feral cats in 1992 saw its last cat pass away in 2009. But scientific research suggests that population stabilization--as opposed to elimination--is often the best-case scenario with TNR.
Alley Cat Allies cites a study of 103 colonies in Rome as evidence that TNR is effective at reducing cat populations. The study found that from 1991 to 2000 the total number of cats across all the colonies declined by 22 percent.
Yet the study's authors themselves found the results less than convincing. Only 55 of the colonies got smaller, while the rest either grew or remained stable. (Populations can expand when caregivers are unable to trap and sterilize every cat in a colony or when pet owners dump unwanted cats there.) TNR "is having some success albeit, not consistently seen in every colony," the researchers wrote. "On the whole, we had hoped for a more-important decrease in the numbers of feral urban cats."
Conservationists argue that by feeding feral cats, well-meaning people disrupt the balance of nature.
"We save the life of one cat, and it kills 200 birds during its lifetime," says Michael Hutchins, executive director of the Wildlife Society. "Did those birds suffer? Darn right they did. Did they lose their lives? Darn right they did." Outdoor cats can also be vectors of rabies and other human-health risks, Hutchins says. And even a well-managed TNR colony can attract rats, skunks, and raccoons.
In 2009, Dauphiné gave a presentation at the University of Georgia titled "Apocalypse Meow!: Free-Ranging Cats and the Destruction of American Wildlife." She told the audience that "euthanasia has been recognized as a superior method of control. And this is what we do for dogs; it's accepted society-wide."
Eric Jenkins's cat had been gone for a couple of hours before he noticed. Cosmos, a long-haired black Tiffany, was an indoor/outdoor cat with a collar. Jenkins, a University of Georgia doctoral student, looked for his cat in the woods surrounding his apartment, where he found several cat traps baited with cat food, but no Cosmos. Although they were unmarked, Jenkins assumed the traps belonged to one of the local animal-welfare groups. Thinking Cosmos might have been scooped up by mistake, he attached notes to some of the cages with his phone number and a picture of Cosmos. Then Jenkins and his wife went out to dinner.
When they returned an hour later, the traps were gone and Cosmos was still missing. Jenkins called the animal-welfare organizations, but they all said they hadn't been trapping in the area. It was April 2008, about a year after NFL star Michael Vick drew national attention to dogfighting. Jenkins and his wife feared Cosmos had become chum for savage dogs.
Jenkins called the Athens Area Humane Society. "Well, there is this crazy lady that has been going around and setting traps for years," he was told.
The Humane Society wouldn't give Jenkins the trapper's name, but they said she operated near the Walmart and a movie theater. Jenkins and his wife began staking out the Walmart parking lot each evening while Angela Burton--a feral-cat advocate who had offered to help--took the movie theater.
Several days later, Jenkins's wife, Allison Dunn, spotted a station wagon with bird stickers driving away from the Walmart. They gave the description to Burton and told her the car might belong to the trapper. About a week later, Burton saw the same station wagon in the Humane Society's parking lot. The driver was unloading trapped cats, two of which were wearing collars. Only later did Burton learn the driver's name: Nico Dauphiné.
"You know that some of these cats must be pets?" Burton said to her.
"It doesn't matter--people should keep their pets indoors," Dauphiné said. "They are a menace to wildlife--they kill small mammals and nesting birds."
The two got into a heated argument. "It was like she was a robot, repeating these studies over and over again," Burton says.
After Dauphiné left, Jenkins arrived and identified Cosmos--who was wearing a rhinestone collar--as one of the cats just unloaded.
The Humane Society called veterinarian William Mangham to examine Cosmos and the other seven cats Dauphiné had brought in. Mangham noticed that most had dried feces on their fur. "Cats are never soiled unless they are sick or confined in their own waste," Mangham says. "None of these cats appeared sick."
Feral cats behave more like wild animals than pets. But these eight cats were calm and easily handled. "My impression was that these were all pet cats, and my concern was: Will they be returned to their owners?" Mangham says.
After 16 days missing, Cosmos seemed unhealthy and had dried feces on his coat, Jenkins says. The cat had to be taken to the animal hospital that evening to have impacted fecal matter removed from his intestines, Jenkins says.