Fair Game?

PETA goes after a Yale postdoc for her research on birds, and some academics cry foul.

September 22, 2017
 
PETA/Facebook

Christine Lattin, a postdoctoral researcher in biology at Yale University, describes herself as a bird lover. Yet she and her work with birds have become targets for animal activists, in particular People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The organization has called on its supporters to demand that Yale stop backing Lattin’s research, and she’s been the subject of protests, including a small one in front of her home earlier this month. She’s also received emails telling her to kill herself.

“I was appalled to learn about the abuse of birds at the hands of Yale experimenter Christine Lattin, who's capturing these sensitive animals from their natural homes and intentionally tormenting and killing them,” reads a template protest email about Lattin on PETA’s website. “These cruel experiments are also wasteful, since they're not applicable to humans or any other species.”

PETA has responded to Lattin’s public attempts to defend her research, including in a point-by-point rebuttal called “PETA to Bird Torturer: Here Are the Facts.” The organization says Lattin’s work is unnecessarily cruel and essentially pointless, despite her assertions that her studies on stress in birds could be applicable to other species.

Lattin uses advanced imaging technology to study how wild birds’ neuroendocrine systems respond to changing environments. Her research, mostly on wild house sparrows, looks at how different neurotransmitters and hormones help these birds survive and thrive, with an emphasis on the stress response. How much stress is good and how much is bad, under which circumstances, and among which birds?

Lattin says that understanding stress in bird populations is important because habitat destruction, climate change and species invasions exist in their natural environments. And because the hormone and neurotransmitter pathways she studies in birds are similar to those in all vertebrates, she hopes her research will have implications for animals broadly -- maybe even humans.

The rub, of course, is that studying stress in birds in the lab environment means exposing them to stressful situations. In the interest of transparency, Lattin has posted all of her studies on her website. Examples include one in which she explored the possible effects of oil spills on birds’ stress response; it entailed mixing small amounts of oil (1 percent of food weight) into the house sparrows’ food and then seeing how they responded to what she called a “standard” stressor: a brief period of restraint in a breathable cloth bag. Subsequent blood samples suggested that the birds were not able to secrete normal concentrations of a stress hormone, meaning that could be a marker for oil exposure in future spills.

Another study involved making four-millimeter incisions in anesthetized sparrows’ legs, to study the role of stress hormones in healing small wounds that commonly occur in nature.

To study receptors in the brain and body, Lattin must euthanize the birds, under anesthesia. But she's also developing medical imaging techniques for studying live sparrows. She recently worked with an engineering student to design a 3-D printed plastic bird holder for scanning purposes, for example, and says she hopes to one day re-release her subjects into the wild.

Still, PETA says what Lattin's been doing at Yale is unethical.

“Snatching sparrows from the backyard, injecting them, wounding them, shaking and yelling at them, using them in several different experiments and then killing them -- this is what is at issue,” said Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president at PETA. “She says she wants to help wild birds, yet her opening move is to cause them as much physical pain and mental anguish as possible. She has captured from the wild, tormented and killed more than 250 songbirds.”

Along with critics, the controversy has earned Lattin some senior supporters who say that her work is not only ethically managed but vital. And some of those supporters accuse PETA of choosing an easy target in Lattin, who is young, female and has yet to secure the kind of tenure-track position that has enabled other animal researchers to weather similar controversies in the past. Science recently asserted that Lattin is “much younger and less established than any scientist the group has singled out before,” for example.

Kevin Folta, chair of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, was a past target of activists opposed to genetically modified foods, who said Folta failed to disclose funding from Monsanto (which Folta called negligible and which he used for public science outreach). He recently defended Lattin in a post on Medium.

“If they intimidate her out of research, or even destroy her presence on Google, they will steal the star of a young researcher on the rise, and that has incredible repercussions throughout the research community,” Folta said. Other young aspiring scientists “are collaterally affected by the intimidation,” he added. “Nobody wants to be a target. If Lattin succumbs to their campaign, someone else will be next, and most scientists would rather change projects than deal with threats, intimidation and harassment.”

Matthew R. Bailey, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, mentioned Lattin in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this week, saying that scientists like her help animals live “longer, healthier lives.” Discouraging studies only “condemns animals to unnecessary suffering and death from preventable illnesses,” he added. “Real animal lovers should be proud to support animal research.”

Guillermo, of PETA, said Lattin is fair game and that “age and position had nothing to do” with PETA’s opposition to her.

“If we’d read about the experiments and found that a middle-aged tenured male professor with a nasty chip on his shoulder was doing them, we’d still have launched a campaign,” she said.

Lattin said Thursday that it’s “scary and upsetting to receive hate mail from people who don’t understand what I’m doing and just believe the misinformation PETA has spread about me and my research.” Some of the claims that bother her most are that she didn’t correctly medicate birds before giving them the superficial leg wounds and that her research isn’t relevant to other species. (For the record, PETA says that Lattin didn't give the birds in the leg-wound study pain medication, and contends that the anesthetic she used, isoflurane, isn't sufficient in that she should have used an analgesic to proactively address pain, too.)

Before PETA’s campaign, she said, “I thought I was doing a pretty good job communicating with the public about my research.” The situation has made her realize she wasn’t doing a good enough job, and that it was probably naïve of her to expect people to download her papers from her website to read about her experiments for themselves.

The silver lining, she said, is that she’s “gotten much better at communicating clearly about the importance of my work, and why it is necessary to use animals to do it. We can’t expect the public to understand why this work matters, and why it has to be done this way, unless we tell them.” It’s an “uncomfortable experience for a lot of scientists, but it is necessary,” she added.

Lattin has frequently said that her research is overseen by Yale. Karen Peart, a spokeswoman for the university, said via email that it “takes seriously its responsibility for the appropriate care of animals” and that its laboratories “comply with or exceed all federal regulations and independent accreditation standards.”

As the campus continues “to advance scientific knowledge and modern medicine, providing hope for millions of patients and their families, Yale scientists will sustain their commitment to the appropriate use of animals in research,” Peart added. “Our faculty members employ animals only when there are no alternative models for advancing their research.”

Of the complaints against Lattin in particular, Peart said Yale’s overseers of animal care “found that all of her research activities were approved and there was no evidence of noncompliance or inappropriate care.”

Those findings were shared with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, and it “concurred that the allegations could not be substantiated and found no cause for further action,” Peart said.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top