Nico Dauphine Resigns

According to the National Zoo’s Twitter feed and a comment posted on its Facebook page, “[Monday] the Smithsonian accepted Dr. Dauphine’s resignation; it was effective immediately.” I haven’t seen a statement anything more official looking from the National Zoo or the Migratory Bird Center.

Indeed, official statements seem to be remarkably scarce following Monday’s verdict. Where are all of Dauphine’s supporters? You know, the individuals and organizations that were so quick to cite her sloppy work when it suited their purpose (i.e., the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats), but that have remained—at least publicly—silent over the past few months.

Speaking of which… The Wildlife Society put out a peculiar statement today via its Making Tracks blog in which they seem to imply that the cats Dauphine attempted to poison had it coming to them because they “congregated near her building.” According to the statement, TWS “does not condone animal cruelty or illegal behavior of any kind”—but that’s hardly the same thing as condemning what was done in this case.

But that’s not all that’s missing. One expects more than “TWS cannot comment on this case” from a blog post called The Wildlife Society Responds to Dr. Dauphine Case on Attempted Animal Cruelty.

Of course, TWS was more than willing to offer Dauphine a platform earlier this year, when it published “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation” and “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy”—both of which demonstrated her willingness to put the witch-hunt ahead of the science (or even the basic information contained in an organization’s financial statements)—in a special section of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”

So what’s changed?

On the other hand, what is there to say, really? The message is coming through loud and clear: Dauphine’s professional work on the subject of free-roaming cats—cited and promoted with great enthusiasm before all this nasty press attention—is as indefensible as the actions that landed her in DC Superior Court.

Nico Dauphine on Trial (Day 3)

Testimony wrapped up Wednesday afternoon in Nico Dauphine’s attempted animal cruelty trial. Among the witnesses for the Defense: Peter Marra, Dauphine’s advisor at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center—who’s previously described TNR as “essentially cat hoarding without walls.” [1] Dauphine took the stand as well, and, as I understand it, did herself no favors career-wise (even in the event she’s found not guilty).

Wednesday evening, Fox 5 News released the surveillance video at the heart of the Washington Humane Society’s investigation. In it, Dauphine is seen attending to some mysterious task—picking up the cat food that was left out by a neighbor, according to the Defense; adding rat poison to it, according to the Prosecution—before entering the building.

A decision is expected Monday afternoon.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.

Jake and Lily

Letter from young child who loved Jake the cat

Over the past few months, I’ve heard from several people familiar with Nico Dauphine’s cat-trapping activities in and around Athens, GA, during her days as a PhD student at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Three years ago, in Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court, Dauphine referred to her roundups as “community service.”:

“Oh, I do it basically as a community service, because I volunteered at Athens-Clarke County Animal Control for many years, and they’ve told me that one of their big problems that there’s no public service to pick up cats, but a lot of people have concerns about stray cats around.”

I recently heard from a former neighbor of Dauphine’s, whose family, like the defendant in the 2008 court case, was a victim of her “community service.” He agreed to share with me a letter he wrote—along with one written by one of his children (pictured above)—describing their experience:

“For more than six years my family has been consistently harassed by our neighbor Nico Dauphine… My wife and our children are fond of our pet cat. We have never owned more than two at a time, however we have been twice charged with a violation of the Athens leash law for our cat wandering into Nico’s yard. It was peculiar that when I requested to be shown the legal violation, that Patrick [Rives], Nico’s boyfriend, and head of animal control, handed a copy of the dog leash law with the word “dog” crossed out and “cat” hand-written in. This indicates to me that there is no specific violation concerning wandering licensed pet cats. Regardless, this household was fined twice, $80 on one occasion in 2008 or 09… and once for $50 in 2010… Additional circumstances involved in these cases would in most circumstances be considered legal entrapment, as Nico baited traps in her backyard with very aromatic bait to attract cats, then would take the cats away and drop them where they would be killed in traffic, as the local shelter would no longer accept cats.

On no occasion did Nico ever inform me that she had caught my cat. As a good neighbor I, on several occasions, asked Nico to alert us when our pet had wandered into her yard. I even suggested that she spray them with a garden hose to encourage them to stay away from her yard. Our children, who were six and eight years old at the time, had to give up their pet, which they had cared for since it was a very small kitten, as he (Jake) would get out and hide in the overgrown brush lot that is Nico’s yard. The children were heartbroken and have as a result learned to hate Nico, which is a behavior we try to minimize in our children.

My pet Siamese, who I had owned for more than six years, was a trained companion animal, as I am totally blind. My cat Lily was trained to pick up dropped items for me, warn me of obstacles in my path in the house, and alert me to people at the door. Nico trapped Lily once in a trap, without any water, on a weekend when Nico had been away in Florida for at least three days. I rescued Lily on that occasion, and threw the trap cage back across the fence into Nico’s yard. In the spring of 2010, Lily got out of my house. As she is chipped, I began calling all the shelters after she was missing for a full day. It was later reported back to me that Nico had told some neighbors that she had gotten rid of that cat. The distress and emotional drain of that incident continue to be costly to me. I had to withdraw from my PhD program as a result, where I was at the point of beginning data collection.

An additional factor about maintaining total control of our pet cat, which is nowhere in the U.S. required, as far as my research has revealed, is that… my wife has [cerebral palsy] and cannot walk adequately to chase down an active animal once it has escaped the house. The cruelty to these pets and to the owners—frequently young children—as a result, is beyond levels that decent society will normally tolerate.”

Isn’t this the same Nico Dauphine whose attorney, following her arrest in May, told the press that Dauphine’s “whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals”? The same Nico Dauphine who landed a prestigious position with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (part of the National Zoo), working alongside Peter Marra, conducting research “on [citizen participants’] free-roaming pet domestic cats”? And the same Nico Dauphine who was invited earlier this year by The Wildlife Professional to contribute to a special section of their Spring issue, “The Impacts of Free-roaming Cats” (in which Dauphine gives readers the ultimatum: “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”)?

Of course. It’s also the same Nico Daupine who’s scheduled to appear in court October 24th, charged with attempted animal cruelty related to the poisoning of cats in her Washington, DC neighborhood.

Note: Patrick Rives did not respond to my e-mail request for comments about this story.

(Animal) Wise Guy II

My sincere thanks to Animal Wise Radio hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson for having me back on the show—this time to discuss the recent arrest of National Zoo researcher Nico Dauphine on charges of attempted animal cruelty and the Smithsonian’s subsequent reaction.

If you missed it, you can check out the complete show in podcast format at iTunes. Also, an MP3 file (22 MB) of our conversation about Nico Dauphine and the Smithsonian (approximately 22 minutes) is available here.

Apocalypse Meow: A Brief Review

Although Nico Dauphine has yet to be suspended from her duties at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, it seems all the attention she’s received over the past week-and-a-half is making life rather uncomfortable for her supporters.

Last week, the National Zoo removed Dauphine’s online application for recruiting field assistants from its Website; this week, the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources pulled her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation from its site.

Which is understandable, given the circumstances. Far more puzzling is what it was doing there in the first place. The content is, not surprisingly, remarkably “selective” in terms of the science. What is surprising, though, is Dauphine’s delivery: she looks and sounds like a person without the least bit of conviction in the material she’s presenting. (Actually, she’s mostly reading to the audience—for 41 minutes.)

Dauphine (whose status hearing, originally scheduled for June 1, has been postponed until the 15th) presented “Apocalypse Meow: Free-ranging Cats and the Destruction of American Wildlife” in March of 2009, at Warnell (where she earned her PhD). Although she tells the audience that her goal “is to review and present the best available science that we have,” what she delivers is essentially no different from what she presented in her Partners In Flight conference paper [1]  (much of which is recycled in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” [2]).

In other words: lots of exaggerated and misleading claims—and plenty of glaring omissions (i.e., the distinction between compensatory and additive predation).

Included in the section on predation are all the usual suspects: Longcore et al., [3] Coleman and Temple, [4] Crooks and Soulé, [5] PhD dissertations by both Christopher Lepczyk [6] and Cole Hawkins, [7] along with references to Linda Winter, David Jessup, [8] Pamela Jo Hatley, and others.

Among the highlights:

Invasive Species (of All Kinds)
Referring to island extinctions, Dauphine references a 2008 paper by Dov Sax and Steven Gaines—the same one the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cite (again, as “evidence” of island extinctions caused by cats) in their Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, released earlier this year. As I point out in my response to the Keys plan, though, the Sax & Gaines paper isn’t about cats at all, but invasive plants. [9]

Magic Multipliers
For Dauphine, Lepczyk’s estimated 52 birds/cat/year predation rate simply isn’t enough. Studies using “prey returns,” she argues, underestimate the real damage. “Some studies using radio-collars and other techniques have shown that, typically, cats will return maybe one in three kills that they make, and sometimes not at all—so this is, again, a very conservative estimate of the actual number of kills.”

But Lepczyk’s PhD work wasn’t based on “prey returns” at all. He used a survey (one of many flaws), asking landowners, “how many dead or injured birds a week do all the cats bring in during the spring and summer months?” [6]

And the idea that cats return only one in every three kills? That’s based on some wonky analysis by Kays and DeWan, who studied the hunting behaviors of just 24 cats: 12 that returned prey home, and another 12 (11 pets and 1 feral) that were observed hunting for a total of 181 hours (anywhere from 4.8–46.5 hours per cat). [10]

The Selective Generalist
Dauphine stretches Hawkins’ conclusions (which Hawkins himself had already stretched past the point of being defensible) to suggest “a sort of preferential prey take for native species in some cases, by cats.” In other words, the cats might target native species.

Or not. Less than two minutes later, Dauphine’s making the case for hyperpredation—the devastating impact on native prey species (e.g., seabirds) brought about by a large population of cats supported largely by predation on an introduced prey species (e.g., rabbits).

From Millions to Billions
It’s difficult not to see Dauphine’s assertion that “it’s not productive to argue about the numbers”—which comes fairly early in her presentation—as disingenuous when she tries repeatedly to quantify predation levels (each of which is then qualified as “conservative”). Her use of a graph included in the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology (shown below) is particularly interesting.

Now, the original source of Gill’s cat “data,” as Dauphine acknowledges, is Rich Stallcup’s 1991 article, “A reversible catastrophe”—inexplicably, the only source Gill cites when he refers to predation by cats: “Domesticated cats in North America may kill 4 million songbirds every day, or perhaps over a billion birds each year (Stallcup 1991). Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll…” [11]

And where does Stallcup’s “data” come from?

“He simply argued—he didn’t do a study—he just argued that if one in ten of those cats kills one bird per day, already then we have 1.6 billion cat-killed birds per year,” explains Dauphine. “We actually know that the numbers are much larger. For instance, he’s starting out with 55 million pet cats; we know there are over 100 million outdoor cats in this country, and possibly far more. We also know from some studies that 80 percent of cats hunt, and the number of birds killed per year are probably much higher. So again, just to emphasize: this is a conservative estimate.”

In fact, Stallcup’s “estimate” is even flimsier than Dauphine suggests:

“Let’s do a quick calculation, starting with numbers of pet cats. Population estimates of domestic house cats in the contiguous United States vary somewhat, but most agree the figure is between 50 and 60 million. On 3 March 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle gave the number as 57.9 million, ‘up 19 percent since 1984.’ For this assessment, let’s use 55 million.

Some of these (maybe 10 percent) never go outside, and maybe another 10 percent are too old or too slow to catch anything. That leaves 44 million domestic cats hunting in gardens, marshes, fields, thickets, empty lots, and forests.

It is impossible to know how many of those actively hunting animals catch how many birds, but the numbers are high. To be very conservative, say that only one in ten of those cats kills only one bird a day. This would yield a daily toll of 4.4 million songbirds!! Shocking, but true—and probably a low estimate (e.g., many cats get multiple birds a day).” [12]

Shocking, yes. True? Why would anybody think so? (I can see the appeal for Dauphine, though: like her, Stallcup grossly overestimates the number of pet cats allowed outdoors.)

(The fact that this absurdity made it—however well disguised—into a standard ornithology textbook may explain a great deal about the positions frequently taken by today’s wildlife managers and conservation biologists regarding feral cats/TNR.)

Apocalypse Now
Perhaps the strangest—almost surreal—part of “Apocalypse Meow” comes when, to illustrate her point that the (over)heated TNR debate can “result in a lot of misunderstandings, misinformation, and hard feelings,” Dauphine refers to an e-mail sent out to the university’s CATSONCAMPUS listserv during the fierce TNR debate in Athens, which read in part:

“There are some folks in the area (and all over) who are not only Anti-TNR, they also hate felines so much that some of them want to round up the cats in the area and kill them.”

Two years later, this is pretty much what Nico Dauphine stands accused of.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219.

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

3. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

4. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390.

5. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566.

6. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191–201.

7. Hawkins, C.C., Impact of a subsidized exotic predator on native biota: Effect of house cats (Felis catus) on California birds and rodents. 1998, Texas A&M University

8. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383.

9. Sax, D.F. and Gaines, S.D., Species invasions and extinction: The future of native biodiversity on islands, in In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,. 2008: Irvine, CA. p. 11490–11497.

10. Kays, R.W. and DeWan, A.A., “Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve.” Animal Conservation. 2004. 7(3): p. 273-283.

11. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 2nd ed. 1995, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

12. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9.

Friends with Benefits

According to their 2009 Annual Report (the most recent available), Friends Of the National Zoo raised $17.5M in “total support and revenue” during 2009. Of that, $1.4M went to the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution. But FONZ support doesn’t end there.

Consider the response I received from a FONZ spokesperson when I inquired about their position on the Zoo’s decision to keep Nico Dauphine on board:

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and FONZ regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

Now, compare that to the response a colleague received about the same time from the National Zoo (this shouldn’t take long):

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

All this talk of leadership and animal care seems like a mix of wishful thinking and damage control more than anything else. Would the reaction—from either the Zoo or FONZ—be the same if the animals involved weren’t neighborhood cats, but animals in the Zoo’s collection? I rather doubt it.

(Oh, and for the record: the Zoo does not have my continued support.)

•     •     •

“A friend will help you move,” goes the old joke. “A good friend will help you move a body.”

When FONZ says they’re “the dedicated partner of the National Zoological Park,” they mean it. Indeed, FONZ seems just as interested as the National Zoo in sweeping this whole “attempted animal cruelty” business under the rug. (Imagine: bad press the week before the busy Memorial Day weekend!)

Earlier this week, I sent my comments to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly via the Zoo’s incredibly opaque contact form. It turns out the same form is used to contact FONZ—bringing to mind the image of a series of individual recycling bins that, in fact, all lead to the same destination: the trash. Rather than falling for the same trick once more, then, I’m posting my message to FONZ right here:

Friends don’t let friends employ accused cat killers.

Perfectly Comfortable? I’m Not.

As many of you know, the National Zoo has shown no signs of suspending Nico Dauphine, despite her recent arrest on charges of attempted animal cruelty. As a result, at least two petitions are being circulated—one by Alley Cat Rescue, and another by Alley Cat Allies.

I encourage readers to sign both petitions, and also to send letters (an online form is available here). Below is my letter to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly:

Dear Dennis Kelly,

As you know, the National Zoo’s mission emphasizes leadership—in animal care, science, and education—as well as “the highest quality animal care.” But recent events indicate that Zoo management has lost sight of this noble mission.

Indeed, allowing Dr. Nico Dauphine—recently charged with attempted animal cruelty in connection with the poisoning of cats in her neighborhood—to continue her work for the Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center demonstrates a profound lack of leadership, and suggests a remarkably narrow view of “animal care.”

Comments made last week by the Zoo’s associate director of communications, Pamela Baker-Masson, only made matters worse—suggesting that Zoo management isn’t even aware of the research Dauphine is conducting. Baker-Masson told 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.”

But, according to the Migratory Bird Center’s Website, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators in this case are, of course, house cats. And, according to an online application form she’s been using to recruit field assistants (the form was recently removed from the Migratory Bird Center’s Website), Dauphine is asking participating citizen scientists to put cameras on their cats.

And still, the National Zoo feels “perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.” What kind of message does this send to the local community, and to the nation as a whole?

The Smithsonian’s 2009 Annual Report indicates that 75 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from “federal appropriations” (63 percent) and “government grants and contracts” (12 percent). One way or another, these are tax dollars. In standing by Dauphine, then, the National Zoo is violating the trust of its primary funding source: the American people (among whom, 38.9 million households own cats).

Finally, the National Zoo should use the current crisis as an opportunity to review its hiring practices. I think it’s safe to say that Dauphine’s reputation preceded her when she joined your organization. Her extreme position against TNR—and free-roaming cats in general—is well documented. As is her habit of misrepresenting the science surrounding the issue.

In her February 10, 2008, letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, Dauphine—who identifies herself as “a scientist who has studied this issue”—makes an outlandish claim:

“In North America, cats may be the single biggest direct cause of bird mortality, far outnumbering all other causes (including human hunters) put together!”

Not even the American Bird Conservancy—which has, for the past 15 years, taken every opportunity to demonize free-roaming cats—goes this far.

And yet, the National Zoo has Dauphine, together with Dr. Peter Marra (who, in a letter co-authored with Dr. Dauphine, has called TNR “cat hoarding without walls.”), [1] researching the hunting habits of house cats. All of which raises questions about the rigor and validity of the research being conducted—not to mention the integrity of those involved.

As the National Zoo’s director, you have the responsibility to address these issues. I am, therefore, asking you to start by suspending Dr. Dauphine until the charges of attempted animal cruelty are dropped, proven to be unfounded, or in some other way resolved.


Peter J. Wolf
Independent Researcher/Analyst
Vox Felina

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.