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Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?

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But cat people were furious. “They’re using old research and making these very large leaps into what these cats can possibly be doing,” said Becky Robinson a few weeks after the study was published. She was irked that the New York Times had covered it without including a counterargument. “How could legitimate media outlets be writing about that and not doing their fact-finding?” she said.

Truth be told, even bird people had problems with the study, which, as Marra admits, was really a literature review that used figures from studies conducted as long ago as 1987, multiplied by “estimated cat abundance,” to reach its impressive conclusions. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” says Kerri Ann Loyd, the University of Georgia student who conceived of the KittyCam, “but I wish they’d waited for some more research.”

Back in Alley Cat Allies’ Maryland office, Becky Robinson scoops up a black tuxedo cat who has wandered into the room. “Do you know what is interesting?” she says from behind his furry back. “That woman who wrote the Times article lives in Takoma Park. And Peter Marra lives in Takoma Park. How about that?” (Times reporter Natalie Angier dismisses the implication that she is the Judy Miller of the Cat-Bird War. “To suggest these studies are wrong, that’s just silly,” she says. “All you have to do is look at the cats in my backyard.”)

At the zoo, Marra pauses as he digests this new information. “Becky Robinson knows where I live?” he says.

With her sensible shoes and earnest demeanor, Robinson seems about as threatening as a high-school guidance counselor. But rumors swirling in the bird community suggest maybe he should be nervous. After all, look at what happened to Nico Dauphine. Privately, many bird people believe she wasn’t guilty at all. They suspect that her outspokenness made her a target, and that she was set up by Alley Cat Allies. Possibly with the help of the Humane Society. Possibly in some kind of false-flag operation. By his third Scotch, Ed Clark is ready to say it. “They were after her,” he says. “They knew her writing. They wanted to take her down. And they did it.”

“Do you recall writing about the issue of cat predation?” the prosecutor asked. It was day two of Dauphine’s trial on animal-cruelty charges. Things were not going well for the defendant, and they were about to get worse.

“Cat what?” interrupted the judge.

“Cat predation.”

“I didn’t know there was such a word, but fine.”

“In talking about the issue, cat predation,” the prosecutor went on, “do you remember writing, ‘Where is the outrage over such slaughter?’”

“That, uh, those were the editor’s words, not mine,” said the defendant.

It was one of many uncomfortable moments in a case that, as bird people had suggested, had a lot of holes. In the beginning, Judge Truman Morrison III seemed persuadable. After all, no cats had died or even taken ill as a result of being poisoned at Dauphine’s residence, and, as the judge himself had noted, the time line was off: Dauphine had complained to her building’s management about the feral-cat problem well after the night she had allegedly “taken matters into her own hands.” There were other questions, too. But the judge could only work with what was in front of him, and right now what was in front of him was an accused cat poisoner trying to get out of admitting she’d written a letter to the New York Times in support of another cat poisoner. This undermined her credibility, in his view, but it was the video that did her in. The footage from the security camera was grainy and incomplete. In one section, Dauphine’s neighbor Rachel Sterling, who the judge wouldn’t have known was affiliated with Alley Cat Allies, spends a few minutes “cleaning up” the feeding area, a bag in one hand, a white plastic spoon in the other.

A few hours later, Sterling’s husband George approaches the area, looks at it, then comes back with his wife. “I’m showing George the area where I feed the cats and explaining to him what’s going on,” Sterling testified.

“I don’t understand why she feels the need to show her husband, who already knows where she feeds the cats, where she found the poison when she’s already cleaned it up,” the judge said.

“If it were my wife, she told me she’d found poison, I’d want to see where it was,” the prosecutor responded. There’s one last shot of Sterling later that evening, with the bag and the white plastic spoon. “Are you layering food down?” the judge asked her.

“No,” Sterling said in court. “There was already food there and it was okay.” After finishing whatever she is doing, Sterling looks directly into the camera. Then there’s the last installment, the one that made the evening news. In it, Dauphine, in a striped winter hat and coat, is bent in concentration over the food. She seems to be taking something out of, or maybe putting something into, a bag. You can’t really be sure. Peter Wolf of Vox Felina called the video “a disappointment. You don’t even see her hands.”

But it was enough for Judge Morrison, who announced he had an “ocean of other cases to get to.” The fact is, he told the court, no one else had approached the area in the time period between Rachel Sterling’s putting down the cat food and the time she discovered the crumbly substance and called the Humane Society. “Nobody,” he told the prosecutor before issuing his guilty verdict, “except Ms. Sterling, George for a few seconds, and your client.” And the guy from the Humane Society. But it couldn’t have been any of them, right? They’re animal lovers.


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