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Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?

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In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, one of the main characters, a birder, becomes so enraged watching his neighbor’s cat kill birds he kidnaps the animal and drives it to a shelter to be euthanized. The character’s indignation was so over-the-top that when the book came out, people assumed it was satire. In fact, an embarrassed Franzen admits, it was a “purely realistic” portrayal of the rage that wells up in the hearts of bird lovers when they find themselves pinned down, like the creatures they defend, by the stronger and more beloved species.

This was the sentiment that rippled throughout the bird community this spring, when bird people became aware of a bill Alley Cat Allies was trying to get passed in Florida that would protect TNR volunteers from charges of cat abandonment—an action that lent credence to bird people’s suspicion that the cat groups were more interested in what Fenwick terms “open-air cat hoarding” than an overall culling of ferals. In a fevered editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, Ted Williams suggested that Tylenol, which is poisonous to cats, be deployed on the local population. Much to the chagrin of cat people, the bill not only failed to pass, but Williams was only briefly suspended.

If any bird lover took him up on his suggestion, it wouldn’t have been the first time one was moved to violence. “When I find these little feathers, I’ve had it,” a 76-year-old Wisconsin woman told police after being convicted of poisoning a neighbor’s cat in 2005. “I love animals, but he drove me to it.”

In 2007, a jury deadlocked over the case of Jim Stevenson, the director of a Texas ornithological society, after he shot a cat menacing some rare plovers. “What I did,” he told the Times, “was right.”

The most high-profile cat-killing case in recent memory is that of Nico Dauphine, a 39-year-old research fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Dauphine was already known in both the bird and cat communities when she arrived in D.C. in 2011, after a video presentation she’d done, “Apocalypse Meow!,” had circulated widely on the Internet. Now a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, she had come to the city to work with Peter Marra on a study about the effects of cat predation on birds.

After Dauphine noticed that her new apartment in Northwest D.C. had a feral-cat problem, she sent a polite e-mail to building management expressing concerns about the skinny cats that gathered to nibble at piles of kibble left under the shrubs, and describing the older woman she’d seen feeding them while checking her mail. “Please do keep my name in confidence,” she added, “as I know from experience how emotional people can get from these types of situations.”

Not long after, Dauphine was arrested. The neighbor had found a “whitish-yellowish” substance on the food and called the Humane Society, which had it tested and found traces of rat poison. An investigation uncovered security-camera footage of Dauphine approaching the area. It looked like she was taking something out of her bag.

A cat-poisoning case would have generated outrage under any circumstances, but Dauphine’s position in the pro-bird firmament made it a full-blown scandal. To cat people, the incident was proof of what they’d been saying about the bird agenda all along, and they seized on her arrest with righteous glee. “Just as smoke usually is accompanied by fire, there is an inexorable link between the anti-cat screeds of birders and wildlife biologists and, finally, their taking of the law into their own hands,” wrote the Cat Defender blog. Alley Cat Allies was front and center of the news coverage, providing journalists with quotes and background on Dauphine’s anti-TNR writing, and Peter Wolf of the blog Vox Felina became the Nancy Grace of the trial, digging up anecdotes from neighbors in Georgia who accused her of, among other things, trapping a neighbor’s pet and bringing it to “a place where it would be killed in traffic.” Dauphine arguably made matters worse by hiring celebrity lawyer Billy Martin, the lawyer who’d unsuccessfully defended Michael Vick in his dogfighting case.

He was not on a winning streak. The researcher was found guilty and fled the city under a barrage of death threats. “Her career,” the judge said grandly as he imposed a sentence of community service, “will never be what it once was.” This was cold comfort to cat advocates who’d angled for jail time, especially when it turned out to not be quite true. Earlier this year, when Peter Marra’s “The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States” was released, cat advocates—who instantly dubbed it the “Killer Cat Study”—pointed to a passage in which Marra cites Dauphine’s work. Alley Cat Allies immediately mounted a petition demanding that the Smithsonian stop funding studies such as Marra’s, not least because of its reliance on the work of “disgraced researcher” Dauphine.

“I don’t really want to talk about Nico at all,” Marra says, sitting miserably in an interview accompanied by a publicist from the Smithsonian at the height of the furor. “I will say she is a wonderful person. And the evidence was far from conclusive,” he adds, with a sidelong glance at the publicist. “But this,” he says, placing a hand on the study, “has nothing to do with that. This is science.”

One would think that the bird community would have mourned a study placing avian mortality figures in the billions, but they were ecstatic at the opportunity it provided to reclaim their moral rectitude. “People were surprised, and relieved, to find the number was larger than anything previously thought of,” says Jonathan Franzen.


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