During a walk yesterday, my dog Hazel snatched something off the grass. I have no idea what she ate — although residents in the high rise above that patch of grass repeatedly complain about dogs, so I could guess — but that wasn’t my only concern. It crossed my mind that that it’s possible our dog might have eaten tainted bait.
Crazy idea? I wish it was. Poisonings happen far too often, sometimes getting reported, mostly not. Often no one knows what happened. They just have a sick dog. A far more likely target than dogs are feral cat colonies. I receive lots of “hate mail” for my national newspaper column directed at nuisance un-owned cats.
Call the police about un-owned cats being harmed and there’s a problem. You see, owned cats and dogs are property. Being un-owned, whose property are these cats? In many communities, police won’t pursue. Really, without colony caretakers – who would know feral cats are harmed? Rarely is a culprit found. When they do follow up, and even offer their best efforts, nabbing a person poisoning feral cats is as challenging as catching the cats.
So, when Nico Dauphine was caught on video opening a bag of what was allegedly rat poison and pouring the contents into food bowls for a colony of feral cats, I was pleased about the authorities taking the offense seriously, and being able to identify via the video what she had done.
But then I heard more. Dauphine was a researcher at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. She has a Ph.D and specializes in conservation of migratory birds.
She also has a long history of being critical of feral cats. In 2009, she delivered an online lecture entitle “Apocalypse Meow,” which she reportedly cited how many billions of innocent songbirds are killed by cats.
In D. C. Superior Court, Dauphine denied all charges. The best her lawyer could muster was that although video cameras captured his client standing over a bowl of cat food, Dauphine was actually removing the food to keep cats from congregating near the building. An offense which may be unkind to the cats, but not unlawful.
Judge Truman Morrison wasn’t having it. He viewed the tape and disagreed. As a result Dauphine was found guilty, and faces up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Cat lovers haven’t been shy in their outcry, calling for even more jail time (not likely in already overcrowded jails) and for her ouster with the zoo. Dauphine has indeed since resigned from her job.
One of the most levelheaded voices on all matters relating to feral cats is from the non-profit feral cat advocacy group Alley Cat Allies. Via a press release, Alley Cat president Becky Robinson said, “Any research Nico Dauphine was involved in should be considered tainted and biased. We know one of her research projects studied the behavior of cats by ‘mounting small cameras on domestic cats that roam outdoors to see how they affect wild bird populations.’ Given this conviction, that research should not be allowed to continue. In fact, it should be dismissed entirely.”
While I am outraged by the offense — I realize Dauphine isn’t alone, she just happened to have been caught.
I publicly called for such an event to bring “bird people” and “cat people” together more than once. I’ve previously written in this column about the increasing divisiveness between those two sides. No one wins.
Dauphine’s poisoning is an example of misplaced passion.
Here’s the scientific truth. If somehow — poof — all feral cats disappeared from the United States, it’s true many bird lives would be saved. That is not an insignificant statement. But keep reading: long term, far more severe problems for songbirds include light and air pollution and habitat loss. Arguably, these issues may be worsening and, in the case of migrating birds, extend beyond U.S. borders.
What’s more, the impact of cats on birds is arguably on the decline. Increasingly, most cat owners keep their cats indoors (where they don’t encounter songbirds) and spay/neuter (so even if they do get outside, they won’t reproduce). Trap, neuter and return (TNR) efforts are succeeding all around America, gradually lessening the number of feral cats.
If TNR has a problem, it’s not enough people volunteering as caretakers and dealing with some “bird people” spewing misinformation in the community. Here’s where the national bird groups can help. And similarly, “cat people” can assist to communicate bird group initiatives about keeping cats indoors. Bottom line, we can help birds if we all work together.
Let’s all find a way to work together. Once again, I call for a symposium to bring the two sides together to find common ground — which likely starts here: No one wants to see songbirds killed. I think working together we can succeed to do far more than working apart and spewing misinformation, even hatred.