ATHENS, Ga. -- A former University of Georgia wildlife biologist has been convicted of attempted animal cruelty for poisoning food that was kept outdoors for feral cats in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood.
Nico Dauphine, who earned a doctoral degree at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, was convicted of the misdemeanor charge in District of Columbia Superior Court on Monday.
She resigned the same day as a researcher for the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
When Athens-Clarke officials debated in 2009 on how to control the county’s growing feral cat population, Dauphine was among critics of the trap, neuter and release (TNR) policy that commissioners enacted into law last year.
Dauphine’s arrest in May stemmed from a monthlong investigation by the Washington Humane Society into a woman’s complaint she found a strange substance in food she left outdoors for stray cats, according to Scott Giacoppo, the group’s vice president for external affairs and chief programs officer.
The woman was a “caregiver” who maintained a feeding station for stray cats in her neighborhood, Giacoppo said.
Analysis of the substance in the cat food identified it as rat poison; Humane Society officials reviewed a surveillance video that showed Dauphine take a plastic bag from her purse, then place something on the cat food, Giacoppo said.
Authorities seized the food and found it had the same poison on it, he said.
“We had probable cause to believe a crime was committed and the U.S. attorney’s office agreed when we presented the evidence,” Giacoppo said.
Federal attorneys prosecute state crimes in the District of Columbia.
Dauphine was represented by Billy Martin, the Washington, D.C., attorney who also represented Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback who served time in federal prison for his involvement with an interstate dogfighting ring.
Martin argued during Dauphine’s three-day bench trial last week that the surveillance video actually showed his client take food from the bowl and place it into a bag, and that someone out of view of the camera could have laced the food with poison.
The judge who presided over the trial found Dauphine guilty of attempted cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Dauphine is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 21.
Giacoppo called the verdict a victory for animal welfare.
“Wild animals are just as important as companion animals,” he said. “This case shows that whether or not an animal is in someone’s lap or in the alley, they are entitled to the same protections.”
TNR has been adopted by communities nationwide as they try to reduce feral cat populations without having to resort to putting strays to death.
While Athens-Clarke commissioners debated whether to enact a TNR law two years ago, Dauphine claimed studies showed that TNR doesn’t work.
Every feral cat can’t be sterilized, and even those that are sterilized still feast on birds and otherwise wreak havoc on the environment, she told the Banner-Herald in March 2009.
“There’s very little or, arguably, no evidence at all that it’s effective,” Dauphine said in an interview. “To me, it’s just a lot about people’s discomfort with death and people not wanting to deal with it.”
Dauphine said her own yard was a wildlife habitat, and feral cats nearly wiped out all the birds that lived there. They’re natural predators and an invasive species, so local prey have no defense against them, she said.
At the time, county officials had to find a way to address a local animal population that was estimated to include as many as 20,000 feral cats. The issue was raised after the Athens Area Humane Society also announced it was adopting a no-kill policy and would no longer accept feral cats that no one would adopt.
Under the Athens-Clarke law — which took effect April 1, 2010 — TNR practitioners must register with the county to feed, trap, vaccinate and sterilize feral cats with permission from landowners, with the help of taxpayer-funded vouchers.
The local TNR law calls for a committee of veterinarians, wildlife experts and TNR advocates review TNR’s effectiveness, and the commission will return to the issue in 2013.