Several residents caring for feral cats in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Columbia Heights noticed a strange substance in the cats' food. The caretakers reported the substance to the Washington Humane Society, which tested the substance last month and determined that it was rat poison.
Officials have since arrested Nico Dauphine, a National Zoo employee, for allegedly attempting to poison the feral cats. Dauphine, a postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, was charged with attempted cruelty to animals and faces up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, if convicted.
The Humane Society conducted a month-long investigation monitoring video surveillance and matching card swipes in and out of an apartment complex near the scene of the alleged crime. The agency, which has the authority to enforce the laws of the District, obtained a warrant for Dauphine's arrest. Dauphine turned herself in but has denied the allegations.
"She's a suspect," Scott Giacoppo, a vice president and chief programs officer with the Washington Humane Society, told ABC News.
The society said there's no way to know how many cats might have died from the alleged incident.
ABC News has been unable to reach the suspect, but an attorney for Dauphine told WRC-TV that she denies the accusations, saying "her whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals."
Dauphine continues to work as a fellow at the National Zoo, where, an official said, she poses no threat to the animals at this time.
"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," Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications for the National Zoo, told ABC News.
Giacoppo of the Humane Society said that if Dauphine is convicted, the agency would be concerned if the National Zoo continued to employ her.
"If she did do this, then we naturally would be concerned about her being around all animals," Giacoppo said. "Whoever would do such a thing is a threat to all animals. It is a slow and painful death. It was callous and complete disregard for animals' well being."
Zoo officials say they will fire her if she's convicted.
Dauphine's research focuses on predation behaviors, specifically looking at how roaming animals affect migratory birds. One of her projects at the National Zoo involves mounting small cameras on domestic cats that roam outdoors to see how they affect wild bird populations.
Dauphine delivered an online lecture in 2009 entitled "Apocalypse Meow: Free-ranging Cats and the Destruction of American Wildlife," which outlined how cats kill billions of animals in the United States each year.
Dauphine obtained her Ph.D from the University of Georgia, a master of science degree from Cornell University and a bachelor of arts degree from Yale University.
The Washington Humane Society investigates about 1,200 cases of animal cruelty each year. The majority of the cases are resolved through education with only a number of people prosecuted for acts of violence.
The Humane Society of the United States works with law enforcement across the country to help investigate animal cruelty reports.