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

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, ABCNews.com, 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.

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.

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.

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.

From November 2005 to July 2008, Dauphiné trapped and brought to the shelter 122 cats, 78 of which were euthanized, according to Humane Society records. "At some point, I have no doubt that we euthanized someone's pet cat," Porter says.

A couple of days after Cosmos was returned, Dauphiné got a phone call from the Humane Society warning her that a woman--whom she later identified as Dunn--had made threats against her.

Then in early May, Dauphiné came upon a blog titled Nico Dauphiné Is Evil, which was written by Jenkins and Dunn. The blog alleged "that I stole their cat, that I trapped other people's cats to get them killed, that I abused animals," Dauphiné told an Athens judge. Jenkins says the blog was a factual account of his and Dunn's experiences with Dauphiné.

Dauphiné considered the blog and the threats to be harassment. On July 3, 2008, she brought the matter before an Athens court, which held a hearing to determine whether Dunn should be arrested for making "terroristic threats" or other crimes, as first reported by Vox Felina. The judge declined to punish Dunn but told her not to contact Dauphiné.

In 2008, Dauphiné completed her dissertation--about the impact of logging on birds in Peru. In the acknowledgements, she thanked the birds in her back-yard sanctuary, which she claimed to have spent "thousands of hours" watching through a window at her desk. "I thank them for refusing to give up their places in the world, whatever grotesque obstacles they find in their way, for their astounding powers of athleticism, endurance, and artistry, and for their fantastic expressions of beauty, wildness, and freedom," Dauphiné wrote.

She applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo. It's one of the world's most selective fellowship programs, says Peter Marra, a research scientist there. Dauphiné was the admissions committee's top choice.

Dauphiné moved to Washington for the fellowship, arriving at the Park Square apartments around Thanksgiving 2010.

For many years, DC residents could call animal control to have feral cats removed from their property. Most were euthanized. That changed in 2008, when then-mayor Adrian Fenty signed an animal-protection bill making trap-neuter-return official policy. DC animal-control officers now respond to complaints about healthy feral cats by referring residents to advocacy groups that offer training in TNR colony management or suggest humane ways--such as motion-activated sprinklers--to keep cats away.

The legislation was a victory for Alley Cat Allies, which had lobbied for it. Pro-TNR ordinances have been adopted in several other cities, including Chicago and Baltimore; locally, Fairfax and Arlington counties have TNR programs.

The Washington Humane Society has dealt with roughly 300 feral-cat colonies in DC. Scott Giacoppo, the organization's chief programs officer, says the change has benefited both cats and residents. "It can bring you together as a community," Giacoppo says. "Everyone is coming together to provide care for these cats." But while thousands of outdoor cats have been sterilized, no one knows if TNR has reduced the number of feral cats. Four years after the policy change, the Washington Humane Society still has no reliable data on feral-cat populations.

TNR is opposed by a large coalition of organizations, including the American Bird Conservancy, the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, and the American Society of Mammalogists. TNR supporters "are not trying to reduce feral cat populations--they are trying to stop euthanasia of feral cats," says Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildlands Group. "They've co-opted the word 'humane.' "

In fact, euthanasia is often the most humane option for feral cats, says Teresa Chagrin, an animal-care-and-control specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA argues that feral cats lead lives of great suffering. They confront disease, starvation, animal attacks, car accidents, and human cruelty. Each year, feral cats are set on fire, shot, and poisoned.

"It's an act of mercy for many of these cats to get a quick, painless death from a person who cares instead of a slow death on the streets," Chagrin says. PETA opposes TNR except in rare cases.

The case of United States v. Nico Dauphiné went to trial in DC on October 24, 2011. Wearing a gray suit, Dauphiné walked into the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse and entered a courtroom on the third floor. Her lawyer, Billy Martin--who had represented Michael Vick when he was indicted on charges related to dogfighting--stood beside her. DC Superior Court senior judge Truman Morrison III peered down from the bench.

Dauphiné faced up to 180 days in jail if convicted of attempted animal cruelty, a misdemeanor. Colleagues in the conservation community didn't believe the allegations. "It's not the kind of person she is," says Christopher Lepczyk, a wildlife ecologist and friend of Dauphiné's. Supporters raised more than $1,000 for her legal defense.

Dauphiné insisted she was innocent.

Despite the security-camera footage, the case against Dauphiné was challenging to prosecute. The crime she was charged with had no known victim; there was no evidence that any cat had actually consumed the poison. Instead, assistant US Attorney Kevin Chambers had to convince the judge that Dauphiné had intended harm to cats. The prosecution--for reasons it refused to explain--decided against presenting evidence of Dauphiné's Athens cat-trapping at trial.

The security-camera footage, which Chambers played in court, was the linchpin of the prosecution's case. But while the video showed Dauphiné leaning over the cat food, it was hard to tell exactly what she was doing. Chambers argued that Dauphiné was the only person to come near the food during the time in question.

Martin disputed the prosecutor's allegations, presenting Dauphiné as a lifelong animal lover who would never put a cat through such an agonizing death. Lisa Laten, an Arlington resident whose outdoor cat participated in a Migratory Bird Center study, testified: "We all felt very comfortable allowing [Dauphiné] to interact with our cats who are members of our family."

Martin also said that an unknown person had been setting rat traps within feet of the cat food. Who's to say the poison wasn't put on the cat food by someone who was trying to kill rats?

On the third day of the trial, Dauphiné took the witness stand. She testified that the security-camera footage showed her cleaning up cat food--not delivering poison. "I put my hand down there and picked up some food and put it in a plastic bag that I had, and then I went into the building and threw it in the garbage," she told the judge. Dauphiné claimed she had removed cat food on other occasions to avoid attracting rats.

Under cross-examination, Chambers asked Dauphiné about an article she had published in the journal the Wildlife Professional titled "Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation."

chambers: "And in talking about that issue, cat predation, do you remember writing, 'Where is the outrage over such slaughter?' "

dauphiné: "That's--yeah, those were the editor's words, not mine."

chambers: "Those are not your words?"

dauphiné: "Definitely not."

chambers: "Okay, I'd like to read to you, in the same article, the final paragraph, and tell me if these are not your words. 'More of us in the wildlife profession need to stand up and add our voices to the cause. We need strong leadership coupled with proactive policies and well-enforced laws that recognize cats as invasive species, impose fines on owners who . . . refuse to control their pets, require mandatory sterilizations of pets, prohibit feral-cat colonies and feeding stations, especially on public land, and acknowledge the legitimate role of euthanasia when necessary. Such measures will go a long way towards protecting the native wildlife we cherish so much.' Are those your words?"

dauphiné: "It's interesting [what] you keep picking. I wrote--I would say I wrote the majority of that article, but you keep picking the things that the editor inserted at the last minute."

Peter Marra of the Migratory Bird Center says Dauphiné didn't know she would be testifying until minutes before she was called. He blames Martin for failing to prepare her. Martin did not comment.

After three days of testimony from ten witnesses, Judge Morrison found Dauphiné guilty of attempted animal cruelty. The judge said her actions in the security-camera footage were "far more consistent with placing something [on the cat food] than cleaning the area."

The judge said the explanation Dauphiné provided on the witness stand "just [didn't] have the ring of truth." He added that her "unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility."

Dauphiné's supporters were stunned; some believed she was framed. Pamela Jo Hatley, who collaborated on an anti-TNR paper with Dauphiné, says feral-cat activists may have conspired against Dauphiné.

Dauphiné immediately resigned from the Migratory Bird Center.

At a sentencing hearing on December 14, Judge Morrison declined to send Dauphiné to jail. "Her career, if not over, is in grave jeopardy and will certainly never be what it was before," Morrison said.

He ordered Dauphiné to perform 120 hours of community service, serve one year of probation, and pay $100. Dauphiné was to have no "intentional or purposeful contact with cats" while completing her community service.

Morrison gave Dauphiné a moment to speak. Her jaw muscles flickered as she clenched her teeth. Nodding to the men and women in the gallery, she said she was grateful to her many supporters. "I've also felt very deeply ashamed to have disappointed them," Dauphiné said in a quivering voice. "I know that I have an enormous task in front of me to rebuild their esteem."

On January 13, Dauphiné appealed the verdict.

While the Washington Humane Society called the judge's ruling a victory, some residents of Athens were disappointed that Dauphiné wasn't going to jail. Roger Keeney worries that she may return to her house in Athens, which she still owns. The Athens Area Humane Society, meanwhile, has become a "no kill" shelter that doesn't euthanize cats except for medical reasons.

By January, Dauphiné was carrying boxes out of the Park Square apartments, Frances Sterling says. Dauphiné has left the Washington area but has told friends not to disclose her whereabouts, out of concern for her safety.

For Jolson and Mama--the cats at the center of the controversy--life has gotten more complicated. Shortly after the verdict, Park Square's management company told Sterling she was no longer allowed to feed the cats on their grounds. A neighbor called the police at least twice to complain about Sterling's cat-feeding and even used a cell phone to make a video of Sterling putting food out. Another neighbor told her to "watch her back," Sterling says.

Sterling contacted a lawyer and now keeps records of all cat-related disputes.

The Washington Humane Society recently fielded a complaint that poison had again appeared on cat food near the Park Square apartments. When Officer D'Eramo investigated, he was unable to find any poison, and Sterling hasn't noticed any new poison. Citing Humane Society policy, D'Eramo declines to name the person who made the complaint.

Sterling now feeds Jolson and Mama near a bench on the lawn of a neighboring building. She feels confident they'll be safe there: "The only thing I'm worried about is them getting old."

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.