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.
Illustration by Jesse Lenz.

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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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.