The world continues to befuddle me. The morning paper still seems as if H.G. Wells might have cooked it up or Orson Welles might be pulling a prank. It’s just that so many of my fellow inhabitants of earth seem driven to cook up causes to justify and give purpose to their personal pathologies. Like a woman named Nico Dauphine, 38, whom we readers of the Washington Post encountered last Tuesday. The headline said:
National Zoo employee found guilty of attempted animal cruelty
In the copy I read there was a tagline. It said:
Defendant allegedly tried to poison cats near her apartment complex
Well. The headline says “found guilty,” so I don’t think we need say any longer that this person “allegedly” did anything. What she did in fact was get caught on security cameras “hovering over a bowl of cat food sitting outside the Park Square apartments,” and “removing a plastic bag from her purse, reaching into the bag and dumping poison onto the food. A neighbor reported the incident, and no cats ate poisoned food.” (A fuller account can be found here).
Lucky that neighbor was around, no? When Dauphine’s attorney called his client to the stand, here’s how it went, according to the Post:
Dauphine said she received a doctorate from the University of Georgia and was currently working at the National Zoo, where she is studying how domestic cats affect wildlife. The National Zoo’s Web site lists her as a postdoctoral fellow with the Migratory Bird Center.
“I’ve always loved animals, ever since childhood,” Dauphine said. “We always had pets when I was growing up.”
Dauphine repeatedly denied throwing rat poison on the food. “I would never do anything like that,” she said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Chambers said Dauphine—who, he said, had complained to building managers about neighbors feeding cats—tried to kill the felines because she thought they were harming the environment, specifically birds.
During his cross-examination of Dauphine, Chambers introduced several of her published writings in which she allegedly wrote about the “outrage” of the “slaughter” of wildlife caused by cats.
Chambers also introduced a letter she wrote, published in the New York Times in 2007, in which she wrote about the “war between cats and birds” and that the “slaughter” was “one-sided.”
Dauphine refuted the examples, saying her writings were misconstrued by the editors.
I love that last line of defense. She didn’t mean what she’d written. Her first line of defense had been her lawyer’s claim that “Someone else could have leaned in, outside of the camera, and put the poison in it.” He claimed, by the way, that she was “simply removing the food to keep strays from congregating.”
Oh, but of course.
So what’s going on here? Like I said, I dunno. The world continues to befuddle me. But what we do have here—outside of one woman’s sickness—is in fact a legitimate ethical quandary. I’ve kept my Ted indoors his whole life, but I remember long ago my parents’ cat, Irving, who from time to time would come trotting home from her darkling adventures with gifts for us. A chipmunk. A sparrow.
I like chipmunks. I like sparrows. And they’ve got a right to life, no? At least to the extent we choose to accord such rights to critters we’ve decided we like. Squirrels yes, rats no. Go figure.
But I’d hesitate to kill a cat for the sake of a chipmunk or a bird. And I’d certainly hesitate to take it personally if a cat ate one I liked. To feel murderous rage toward a housecat is to have things all wrong. But should we perhaps be asking the people who own cats to keep them inside for the sake of other critters? And if we believe strongly that, for example, bird populations are avoidably being harmed, would we be justified to raise some sort of fuss? To push for local ordinances to fine owners who let their cats roam the neighborhood? To push for more programs to keep down the population of strays? Perhaps not even for the birds’ sakes, but for theirs?
When I was in Italy, for awhile I stayed in a house where the cats were happy. You could tell. They came and went as they pleased—sometimes through the open window—and they were without fear or inhibition. They ate table scraps. They had all their claws. The female ones got to be moms once or twice before they got spayed. It was felix domestica in harmony with homo sapiens italiano.
But not long before I arrived, there had been a robin out in the garden. One of those happy cats ate it. Should we think of this as an avoidable or unavoidable cause for sadness? Or no cause at all?
I have no answer, really. I’ll confess that when asked why I keep Ted in the house I can say truthfully that it’s for his safety and my convenience. I hadn’t thought much all these years about the birds. Here’s an article in Mother Jones called “Are Cats Bad for the Environment?” that—though it feels a bit overdone—I found informative. And so, I might add, did the more than 1,600 readers who argued on the Mother Jones website for days. But here’s a bit of literary commentary I found equally, if not even more, instructive—“Breakfast Breakfast I Am Full of Breakfast,” which contains the lines:
oh feline cosmos you were
made for cats
That is, admittedly, somewhat feline-centric. So tell me what you think of all this.
By the way, I don’t know the cat, or the man, or the parrot in the photo above. But I’d sure like to know what happened next!