The Show Must Go On!

On May 25, 2011, J. Scott Robinson, Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects for the Smithsonian Institute, sent a three-page proposal (PDF) to Randy Dettmers, a biologist in the Division of Migratory Birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, outlining the scope and budget for a project called “Effects of subsidized predators on bird populations in an urban matrix.”* The work was to begin in just one week and continue through the end of September, conducted by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers Peter Marra and Nico Dauphiné.

“We look forward to working with you on this important project,” Robinson wrote in closing.

The budget request was just $14K, but it’s difficult to imagine any proposal being approved and funded in a week—never mind one with a three-day holiday weekend. For this particular proposal, though, there was more than the usual bureaucracy to contend with.

Two weeks earlier, on May 11, Dauphiné had been arrested, charged with attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison neighborhood cats outside her Park Square apartment building.

One would imagine that such news—which, not surprisingly, did not go unnoticed by the press—would cause the Smithsonian to reconsider whether one of their post-doctoral fellows should be researching the hunting behavior of “a minimum of 30 outdoor pet cats,” as the proposal stipulated, in the DC area. Yet, the day before Robinson wrote to Dettmers, Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokesperson for the National Zoo (which oversees the Conservation Biology Institute), expressed no concern, telling ABC News:

“We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

Perhaps Masson-Baker was simply unaware of the nature of Dauphiné’s research (which would raise doubts about her qualifications as a spokesperson, of course). Or, as Robinson’s letter suggests, Dauphiné’s arrest posed no risk to the project’s future.** (Indeed, one wonders if the news actually expedited the paperwork.)

•     •     •

Fast-forward a year-and-a-half, to the recent publication of the Smithsonian’s “killer cat study,” proof, it seems, that the cozy relationship between the Smithsonian and USFWS continues. As does their coordinated effort to perpetuate—no, ratchet up—the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

And there’s the story the media is missing. When will somebody look beyond the press releases and sound bites—into how this kind of junk science get funded, published, and sold to the public?

* Obtained through a FOIA request.
** I wrote to Robinson last October, asking about the Smithsonian’s apparent lack of action. (Dauphiné was not suspended pending her trial.) I asked about any data that had been collected prior to her arrest. His response was prompt, but brief: “Thank you for your inquiry. I have forwarded your request for information to the appropriate parties in the Institution.” My follow-up inquiry, asking about who these parties might be, went unanswered.