Tag Archives: animal rights

The Problem With Jane Goodall’s “Expert” Opinion

On September 7, 2017, Dr. Jane Goodall wrote a scathing letter to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) denouncing what she called the “cruel and unnecessary nicotine addiction experiments on monkeys” occurring there. The letter, which relies on the repeated use of opinion versus fact-based arguments by Goodall, is not just problematic, it’s downright dangerous.

This is not Goodall’s first time lending her name to various efforts by animal rights activists opposed to federally-supported biomedical and behavioral research, despite her lack of expertise or relevant credentials. Goodall has often partnered with animal rights groups to attack life-saving science. In March 2016, she supported a campaign by the Animal Justice Project to stop preclinical trials of a new malaria vaccine. In September 2016, Goodall joined Cruelty Free International (CFI) to co-author a letter attacking the use of animals in neuroscience research (to which a counter-letter, signed by 400 prominent experts in the field, was published). In February 2017, Goodall worked with For Life on Earth to call out Prof. Roger Lemon, a notable Professor of Neurophysiology, to criticize his comparative work with both humans and non-human primates.

Squirrel monkey. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As detailed here, her most recent letter to the FDA, in partnership with The White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, a conservative-leaning animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research, relies on the repeated use of opinion rather than empirical observations or rigorous study to arrive at sweeping – and dangerous – conclusions.  

The problems

We’ll tackle this letter in particular, though past letters signed by Goodall and other notable figures like David Attenborough, are similarly flawed and should be similarly scrutinized.

  • No relevant credentials or expertise: This one bears repeating. Although this should be obvious, to many it is not. Though she possesses a PhD and is described as an expert on chimpanzees, Goodall’s “expertise” ends there. She does not possess an advanced degree pertinent to the field of addiction research, and moreover she has never conducted research in a biomedical research facility. Thus, her first-hand knowledge of the methodology and oversight in these types of studies is questionable at best. Would you consult a cardiologist for questions about your car’s transmission?  Or, conversely, consult an auto mechanic about your open heart surgery? In fact, Dr. Goodall appears to recognize this. For example, in her video targeting Prof. Roger Lemon, midway through the video Goodall notes: “I don’t have the scientific medical knowledge to take issue with Professor Lemon” before going on to demand he debate pseudoscientist, Dr. Ray Greek. The problem here is that the weight given to Goodall’s opinion is directly related to impressions of her expertise and credentials. This issue of ethics of expertise is an important one. Goodall herself may not be directly claiming to be a neuroscientist, or an addiction researcher, but one of the reasons that her opinion may be thought valuable in these campaigns is because she is a scientist. As as scientist, it is worth considering whether Goodall should be upfront about her lack of expertise in the topic at hand. In fact, Goodall’s conclusion that the research is “unnecessary” and that “the results of smoking are well-known in humans” are opinions, rather than statements based in evidence and expert analysis.

    “I don’t have the scientific
    medical knowledge…”
    – Jane Goodall

  • “I have been told that…”: This should immediately set off alarm bells to anyone reading Goodall’s letter. Forget what comes after that – who has told her what she describes? As we have noted in the past, it’s crucial to know the starting assumptions of those engaging in a conversation, and the assumptions must be spelled out. In this case, it is no secret that Goodall has worked with The White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, a conservative-leaning animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research (this starting position itself is dangerous, as described below). The WCW’s site itself states, “On the heels of WCW’s new lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)…Dr. Jane Goodall has joined WCW’s campaign to expose and end this wasteful project.” Put simply: Goodall appears to rely only on information provided to her by animal rights groups to make the case in her letter.
  • Factual inaccuracies: Probably because she appears to rely on the distorted information from WCW, Goodall’s letter is full of multiple inaccurate statements. One example is when she writes, “Not only is it extremely cruel to restrain the monkeys.”  In reality, empirical evidence—that is data – show that restraint devices used in such studies do not cause severe stress to the animals, because they are slowly trained to be familiar with and calmly enter and remain in the restraint devices. Despite her scientific background—which should result in knowing that evidence and citations matter—Goodall cites no evidence for her claim that restraint is “extremely cruel.”
  • Sweeping assumptions: At least two glaring assumptions stand out in Goodall’s brief letter.
    1) Goodall writes, “To continue performing nicotine experiments on monkeys when the results of smoking are well-known in humans – whose smoking habits can still be studied directly – is shameful.” There are several problems with this statement. The first is that Goodall assumes that the monkey studies examining the neurobiology and physiology of nicotine addiction is the same thing as studying smoking habits in humans. Someone with expertise in this field should know these are false equivalencies. The only other plausible explanation is that she is choosing to ignore the fact that these two are not the same thing. The FDA describes on its webpage that nicotine research will inform about the toxicity of tobacco products as they continue to change by manufacturers, about how changes in tobacco product characteristics (e.g., aerosolized chemicals, often including nicotine, found in e-cigarettes) impact addiction, and about the changes in cell function/physiology after tobacco exposure. These types of findings are not readily available from studying humans’ smoking habits. 2) Near the end of her letter, Goodall writes, “I’m sure that most Americans would be horrified to learn that their tax dollars are paying for this abuse.” Again, Goodall makes major assumptions without citing any sources of data. We can just as confidently say that we’re sure most Americans would be glad to know their tax dollars are being used in highly-regulated research studies that address the health of current and future generations.

The dangers

  • Calls for de-funding life-saving research: The most recent nicotine delivery methods, e-cigarettes, have not yet been well studied for their health effects, yet they represent a major public health concern. We do not yet know all the ways in which nicotine in e-cigarettes affects the brain. Studies such as those conducted by the FDA in animals, including monkeys, will teach us how these new delivery methods affect the brain and body, which will in turn lead to recommendations for regulation of these products and potential treatments for addiction. Despite these life-saving benefits, Goodall and WCW call for an end to this line of research in their letter. This explicit threat should ring alarm bells for any citizen concerned about public health. But this is not the first time animal research opponents have called for an end to beneficial research. Just a week ago, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Dr. David Shulkin, had to make a plea to the United States Senate to not end life-saving canine research after a campaign by – you guessed it – WCW called for an end to this line of work. Think about that. The VA Secretary had to lobby the U.S. Senate to save a life-saving research program for veterans.

  • Threats to the advancement of scientific knowledge: As if threats to life-saving research weren’t enough, animal rights campaigns that rely on “experts” like Goodall are also threatening to end – or have already ended – scientific programs geared toward broadening and enhancing society’s basic knowledge of the way the world works, from the toxic effects of vapors in e-cigarettes to the safety of new vaccines to the communication between neurons to mechanisms of stress resilience to…the list goes on. This type of basic knowledge is crucial before life-saving treatments can be developed. This implicit threat should ring alarm bells for any citizen, period.

The Fact Check: PETA vs. Christine Lattin

A systematic evaluation of PETA’s claims about Dr. Christine Lattin’s research highlights a lack of context, misrepresentation of her work, and – in some cases – statements that are just not factually accurate. Again, PETA demonstrates to the world why we should not take such claims at face value.

PETA’s campaign against Dr. Christine Lattin, an early career researcher at Yale University, began in May 2017. At first blush, this seemed like the usual nonsense that PETA often gets up to: sensational claims and some selective reporting about the issue at hand – usually in an effort to get the maximum emotive response regardless of the truth or of the consequences (see for e.g., here, here, here, here).

A quick search (see Dr. Lattin’s website and Twitter) reveals a researcher that is open and transparent about her research, critical about the limits of interpreting her research, and one willing to stand up to these allegations without fear – a sign of true conviction about one’s work. Recently, PETA upped the ante and posted a long diatribe claiming that Dr. Lattin, who was defending herself and her research via Twitter, was presenting an alternate version of the facts.

We decided to evaluate PETA’s claims against Dr. Lattin in order to provide a public view of the facts and context that are relevant to considering PETA’s statements. We are not claiming an absence of potential bias, nor should others. PETA also has a particular interest in the topic, as they clearly state their view opposing all use of animals by humans (for research, but also food, clothing, and entertainment). As well, many of us that are affiliated with Speaking of Research study animals in our own research, and therefore have a vested interest in this topic. With these starting assumptions in mind let’s jump in.



Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “[I]f my research wasn’t [sic] applicable to humans or any other species, it wouldn’t get approved, funded or published.” (Twitter, August 3, 2017)

PETA response: Applicability to humans or other species is not a condition for approval, funding, or publication of research. Indeed, the results of many of the most abusive experiments using animals are not relevant to humans and are driven only by curiosity. For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a series of infamous stress experiments [by Harry Harlow, emphasis added] in which infant monkeys were stuffed into tiny cages and then terrorized with loud noises. A horrific variation on this involved drugging mother monkeys, taping over their nipples, and then observing how their frightened babies frantically tried to wake them up. The experimenter responsible for this cruelty admitted publicly that his results were not relevant to human mental illness. Yet NIH saw fit to fund these experiments for more than 30 years with a total of more than $35 million.

Applicability to humans or other species is not a condition for approval, funding, or publication of research. That is a strength of science – a feature, not a bug, because the foundation of scientific discoveries and advances depend on basic research. It would be disingenuous to stop there though. Where research can potentially cause harm or distress there generally needs to be a clear justification of applicability, for example, either to the species being studied or to other animals, in order for such work to be conducted. Some of Dr. Lattin’s research involves a degree of stress, and will therefore have been subject to an analysis that weighs risks to the animals with consideration of scientific objectives and potential benefits from the research.

Indeed, if one were to read Dr. Lattin’s publications, which are posted freely on her website, one would see that her research is not driven by simple curiosity but clearly states the applicability of her research to other species of passerine birds. And, as an example of selective reporting, PETA fails to post/address the very next comment that Dr. Lattin’s posts on her Twitter feed where she provides an example of the applicability of her work to other species.

We have previously addressed the one sided argument against the NIH funded research of Harry Harlow. We also note that Harlow died over 35 years ago. Harlow’s work, and that of his contemporary colleagues, is one used in arguments by those opposed to animal research.  As we state in a previous article:

“Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.”

We, and others – including NIH and leading scientific organizations have addressed and supported the contemporary research to which PETA refers (e.g., NIH statement, APA statement, ASP statement).


Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “Also: there is a TON of oversight on all animal research (mine included). It’s not illicit or secret.” (Twitter, August 3, 2017)

PETA response: Lots of paperwork does not equal protection for animals. The systems of oversight in laboratories are weighted in favor of the experimenters and often fail the animals they are designed to protect. The only law that offers any sort of protection for animals in laboratories deals primarily with housekeeping issues and excludes birds, mice, rats, reptiles, amphibians, and animals used in agricultural experiments. No experiment is illegal.

Experimenters can deliberately inflict psychological suffering and pain with the flimsiest of justifications and still receive approval by oversight committees. As a result, many experiments that are wasteful and irrelevant and cause significant suffering are approved. Just two of many recent examples include experiments on dogs with canine muscular dystrophy that have failed to lead to any effective treatments and others in which hamsters were given cocaine and forced to fight.

PETA lumps a lot of little things together (a gish gallop tactic), perhaps in the hope that by doing so, the perception of similarity/applicability is achieved. The first criticism states that the Animal Welfare Act in the USA does not cover rats, mice, and non-mammalian vertebrates. However, this does not mean that these animals are not without protection or consideration, as we have previously explained. In fact, these animals receive oversight in numerous ways. Among them, federal law mandates compliance with standards, provides external oversight and mechanisms for public transparency of federally-funded research with rats, mice, and birds.  Further, accreditation by AAALAC requires compliance with standards. Finally, the research is subject to IACUC approval and oversight.

Moreover, the wild birds that Lattin studies are covered under the Animal Welfare Act, as explained by Ellen Paul, executive director of the Ornithological Council. Additionally, some of Dr. Lattin’s work actually informs standards for the keeping of wild birds in captivity and for example, include the consequences of captivity across time on the behavior and physiology of wild birds.

“The Animal Welfare Act covers all warm-blooded animals. In the past, the regulations excluded rats, mice, and birds. After litigation, the USDA agreed to include these taxa but a Farm Bill amendment excluded “purpose-bred” rats, mice, and birds.”

As Dr. Lattin’s birds are wild caught, and not purpose bred, they remain covered by the Animal Welfare Act.

The second criticism – that research can involve significant suffering and pain on a whim is not supported by the available evidence. Only approximately 3% of all approved experiments are rated as severe, and cause significant suffering (inferred from the severity ratings of countries that provide them and categorized in the USA as “E”). Moreover, and as mentioned previously, the risk benefit analysis in the USA, and the Harm-Benefit analysis in Europe and Switzerland, all require that any harms experienced by the animals are weighed with respect to the scientific objectives, the potential benefit of performing the experiment, or both. So, once again, PETA’s statements are demonstrably false.

Dr. Christine Lattin checks the tag on a bird to be released as part of her research.


PETA continues: Like these, Lattin’s studies have not led to any useful real-world applications, hinge on the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering, and require the death of the birds used. Here’s a sampling of what birds have endured in her experiments with “oversight”:

  1. Experimenters subjected birds to terrifying stressors, including rattling their cages, rolling them on a cart so that they could not perch, and physically restraining them, for 30 minutes four times per day at random intervals.[1]

What are these procedures that PETA calls “terrifying stressors?” They are part of a well-established approach to studying stress, called chronic mild stress, in biomedical research. Paul Willner, was the first to describe and subsequently validate this approach, and in a recent open access methodological review highlights the translational value of this model.

“Now 30 years old, the chronic mild stress (CMS) model of depression has been used in >1300 published studies, with a year-on-year increase rising to >200 papers in 2015. Data from a survey of users show that while a variety of names are in use (chronic mild/unpredictable/varied stress), these describe essentially the same procedure. This paper provides an update on the validity and reliability of the CMS model, and reviews recent data on the neurobiological basis of CMS effects and the mechanisms of antidepressant action: the volume of this research may be unique in providing a comprehensive account of antidepressant action within a single model. Also discussed is the use of CMS in drug discovery, with particular reference to hippocampal and extra-hippocampal targets. The high translational potential of the CMS model means that the neurobiological mechanisms described may be of particular relevance to human depression and mechanisms of clinical antidepressant action.

Dr. Lattin also addresses this in her paper but this rationale, justification, and context are not fully evident in PETA’s consideration. For example, in the paper that PETA references, Dr. Lattin first points out why studying chronic stress is important, and in particular, relevant to our understanding of the bird itself.

“…diagnosing chronic stress is not simple – the effects of presumed cases of chronic stress vary by species, stress paradigm, life history stage and other factors…”

“…knowing whether animals are successfully coping with stressors or suffering deleterious effects from an overactive HPA axis can be crucial for diagnosing the health of an individual animal.”

Dr. Lattin then highlights why she used these particular mild stressors.

The stressors usedhave all been shown individually to significantly increase CORT titers…” [note CORT refers to the stress hormone cortisol]

Yet, none of these considerations are highlighted by PETA, even though they are clearly and logically presented in Dr. Lattin’s publication.

  1. PETA: “One bird died during the administration of anesthesia prior to euthanasia.[2]

This is factually incorrect: “One male from the chronic stress recovery group died prematurely under anesthesia during perfusions” NOT during anesthesia – meaning that the animal was successfully rendered unconscious. Because Dr. Lattin’s wild caught birds are a heterogeneous population, i.e., they may vary in age, body status, immune composition etc., there will be individual differences in the way they respond to the anesthetic and sometimes, may do so in an unpredictable way — even when the recommended dosing is followed. Moreover it highlights why we need more research on wild caught birds – so that we may better understand why these individual differences exist and to accommodate such predictions into existing anesthesia protocols. Finally, because this bird was rendered unconscious at the time of death – it experienced no pain at its time of death.

  1. PETA: “Twenty-six feathers at a time were plucked from birds without pain management.[3] Plucking large numbers of feathers can cause bleeding, skin irritation, discomfort, and difficulty with thermoregulation.

In this paper, Dr. Lattin plucks feather from these birds to induce molting. Here, she was interested in validating a less invasive and integrated measure of a birds’ stress response. Note that this is first line of text in the paper.

“The newly described technique of extracting corticosterone (CORT) from bird feathers may serve as a less invasive, more integrated measure of a bird’s stress response.”

In the paper, Dr. Lattin states that she followed the method of Strochlic and colleagues. Of relevance here is that this procedure is performed under anesthesia – meaning that the animal was unconscious during the procedure.

“Starlings were briefly anesthetized with halothane, an inhalable anesthetic, administered in a nose cone and feathers were plucked by hand…”

It is not standard veterinary practice to administer analgesics following this procedure as it is not considered to be painful after the initial plucking; again note that this procedure was performed under general anesthesia. It is unlikely that this procedure causes bleeding, or the administration of analgesia, topical or otherwise would have been prescribed. Moreover, it is standard procedure to maintain birds at temperatures that may cause thermoregulatory distress.

These arguments presented by PETA therefore seem to be strawmen, meant to evoke an emotive response but once again are not supported by the available facts.

  1. PETA: “Capsules were surgically implanted under birds’ skin to administer drugs and then removed without pain medication.[4]

In the paper, Dr. Lattin again states that she followed the method of Strochlic and colleagues. Of relevance here is that this procedure is, again, performed under anesthesia – meaning that the animal was unconscious during the procedure. Please see the preceding the point for further discussion about the necessity of analgesia.

“All birds were anesthetized with metafane and implants were inserted subcutaneously between the shoulder blades. Silk sutures closed the incisions.”

  1. PETA: “Birds were used for multiple experiments and in some cases kept in captivity for several months before being killed.[5], [6], [7]

The same animals were studied as part of a single research program that addresses multiple questions. Studying the fewest animals possible often means the same animals are used within multiple studies. Re-using animals for experiments is consistent with the 3R principle of reduction, and minimizes the overall stress experienced by removing the need to capture more wild birds. Again, Dr. Lattin is transparent about this in her publication.

“As part of another study published previously (Lattin et al., 2014), we took body mass measurements and blood samples from all birds immediately before the onset of feeding and 2 and 4 weeks into the feeding experiment. The results of this sampling have been described in detail elsewhere (Lattin et al., 2014).”

  1. PETA: “Two birds died of “unknown causes” after two weeks of captivity.[8]

This is transparently stated in the paper. One should not confuse the use of the term “unknown causes” with the implication of wrongdoing.

  1. PETA: “Birds lost 8 percent of their bodyweight and heart mass, and their muscle density decreased during the stress of captivity and repeated experimentation.[9]

This is precisely some of the information Dr. Lattin seeks to discover. In this research, Dr. Lattin investigates the long-term effects of captivity on wild birds by measuring behavior and physiology. From this research she determines, “From a conservation perspective, this study … suggests that time in captivity should be minimized when birds will be reintroduced back to the wild.” Therefore, the loss of 8 percent bodyweight etc., is evidence for future researchers to reduce the time birds spend in captivity before being reintroduced back into the wild. It is not evidence to justify not doing the research in the first place; it is evidence that such research needs to be refined – which is exactly how refinements in animal care progresses and is reflected in the 3R perspective of refinement.

  1. PETA: “Birds exhibited behavior that indicated stress and anxiety, such as beak wiping and feather ruffling.[10]

Another glaring example of where context matters. Dr. Lattin investigates in this paper whether “experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone [i.e., stress hormones, emphasis added] may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes”. And, indeed, she does find a decrease in beak wiping but not feather ruffling in animals treated with a drug to reduce stress. So contrary to PETA’s claims, Dr. Lattin shows that one of the detrimental consequences of captivity, increased beak-wiping, can be reduced in birds brought to the laboratory for various purposes, including conservation – a further case of refinement.

  1. PETA: “Wounds were inflicted on birds’ legs without pain medication.[11]

In Dr. Lattin’s paper it clearly states, “Prior to wounding we anesthetized birds using isoflurane.” What that means is that the birds are unconscious during the procedure and therefore were not able to perceive pain. The Ornithological Council’s guide states:

“An anesthetic is an agent that produces analgesia (loss of pain sensation) and, in the case of general anesthetics, immobilization and loss of consciousness so that the individual is unresponsive to stimulation. Anesthesia ideally minimizes stress and eliminates pain during a research procedure.”

  1. PETA: “Some birds were so distressed that they lost 11 percent of their bodyweight within five days of capture.[12]

Dr. Lattin has previously shown that decreased body weight is a consequence of captivity and in the present paper she uses captivity as a model for chronic mild stress (see point 1 and 7). She also notes in her paper, “After 5 days of captivity, house sparrows lost 11% of initial body mass, although birds lost more weight during molt and early winter”. This indicates, that the weight loss is within the normal range for these animals; although she also finds “the simultaneous demands of molting and chronic stress resulting from captivity may be part of the reason that molting birds lost significantly more weight than sparrows at other times of year.” Now the question can be asked, why did Dr. Lattin do this and what are the implications of her work? She is quite open about this, and together with her work which shows changes in behavior and body weight as a consequence of captivity, it also highlights for the benefit for future birds, “…it may be desirable to avoid bringing birds into captivity during particularly vulnerable stages (such as during molt in birds) for purposes such as translocation


Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “Because the hormone and neurotransmitter systems I study are very similar across vertebrates, my work also has important implications for human health.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: Lattin’s experiments lack applicability to humans. Her studies of chronic stress focus on the effects of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, or axis, but there are significant anatomical and physiological differences between human and birds. The HPA axis regulates the secretion and release of steroid hormones and plays an important role in stress responses for both humans and animals. Birds’ adrenal glands produce steroid hormones that are different from those produced by human adrenal glands—the main adrenal hormone produced in birds is corticosterone, while in humans and other mammals it is cortisol. Unlike humans, most birds produce very low levels of aldosterone,[13] and their adrenal glands lack the distinct outer cortex and inner medulla that is characteristic of human adrenal glands. Some male birds possess an appendix epididymis that extends into the adrenal gland, while others have adrenal tissue in the epididymis, a feature that does not exist in human males.[14] With such anatomical and functional differences, the physiological response to chronic stress in birds cannot be extrapolated with any reliability to other species, including humans.

Here PETA throws up a superficial argument at best. The argument may be read as a lack of awareness, or even a deliberate ignorance about whether and how the comparative study of similarities and differences between species such as human and other non-human animals have led to major advances in our understanding of behavior, physiology, and the treatments of disease. We have covered this issue in many posts previously, including here. But even without acknowledging the benefit of the comparative approach to humans, PETA appears to be very selectively reporting. Dr. Lattin also states on her website “One of the major areas of my research is the stress response…..understanding stress in wild animal populations is important because stressors like habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions now affect most, if not all, animal species…stress is also a major risk factor for depression, heart disease, drug abuse, and suicide in humans. Understanding more about the physiology of stress could help lead to the development of new medicines and procedures to reduce stress in humans and animals.


Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “[B]ecause they are an invasive species in North America that competes directly with native bird species for nest sites and other resources, there is no negative [conservation] impact, and potentially, even a mild beneficial impact, of removing them from the wild.”[15]

PETA response: Even if some groups designate certain species as “invasive,” this does not justify capturing, confining, and tormenting them. Lattin isn’t killing these birds in the interests of conservation—she’s holding them captive and deliberately inflicting frightening and painful procedures on them for weeks and sometimes months before finally ending their lives. This has nothing to do with conservation or protecting native species.

Again, it appears that PETA has selectively reported and paraphrased Dr. Lattin’s paper. Dr. Lattin provides four reasons for the use of this species of bird; yet PETA presents none of these other explanations. Dr. Lattin justifies quite comprehensively why she studied what she studied, and in what species; but you can decide.

House sparrows are excellent subjects for these kinds of toxicological studies for several reasons. First, they are easy to catch and do well in captivity, unlike many avian taxa, such as shorebirds. Second, because they are an invasive species in North America that competes directly with native bird species for nest sites and other resources, there is no negative impact, and potentially, even a mild beneficial impact, of removing them from the wild. Third, as a passerine species, they are taxonomically similar to many birds living in coastal and riparian areas contaminated by oil, such as seaside sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus) and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Finally, the extensive validation data necessary for receptor binding studies are missing for most avian species, but are available for house sparrows.”


Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA):  [regarding experiments in which she fed crude oil to sparrows]: “Doing this research in a lab environment allowed me to control a lot of things that might vary in the wild and make it hard to draw clear conclusions about cause and effect. What I found was that oil specifically impacted birds’ adrenal glands, preventing them from secreting normal amounts of stress hormones.” She cites this as being among “some important discoveries.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: In these experiments, Lattin fed a uniform dose of crude oil to birds until it achieved her desired effect and she was able to see measurable results, failing to take into account the wide variability in the level of exposure that would occur in a natural setting. When she compared two groups of birds, one of which was fed oil, both groups were under so much stress that they experienced the same rate of weight loss, and one bird died of undisclosed causes.[16] Additionally, there is little correlation between sparrows and aquatic birds, the species generally affected by oil spills. Studies of penguins and ducks, some of which were conducted decades ago, have produced widely varying results, including, respectively, an increase in corticosterone caused by oil exposure, a decrease, and no difference at all.[17], [18], [19] Not only are oil-feeding studies in sparrows irrelevant—as the sparrow is a nonaquatic species and therefore unlikely to be exposed to oil spills—they also fail to yield any results that can be extrapolated to other species of birds. They cannot mimic realistic situations and, as such, lack real-world applicability to conservation problems.

Dr. Lattin’s justification for her work was covered in the preceding point evaluation; however Dr. Lattin has also discussed this quite clearly in her paper. Additionally, and in response to PETA’s claim about a lack of applicability, this research is already being used by other researchers to show health problems and deaths observed in wild dolphins and sea turtles after Deepwater Horizon were due to oil exposure.


Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “Understanding how hormones and the brain affect stress resilience will allow us to predict what kinds of individuals will be the winners and losers in the face of current and future environmental challenges.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: It stretches credulity to equate the extreme stress of capture and the subsequent terror that Lattin deliberately inflicts on birds to the pressures brought on by, for example, climate change. In its 2015 “Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report,”[20] the National Audubon Society stated, “The persistence of many North American birds will depend on their ability to colonize climatically suitable areas outside of current ranges and management actions that target climate change adaptation.” So for instance, a species’ chance of surviving a warming world increases if nearby higher elevations offer a more suitable habitat and the birds are not blocked from moving into those areas. Nowhere does the report mention that the ability to withstand being rattled in a cage, rolled on a cart, and physically restrained is indicative of a bird’s resilience in the face of climate change.

It is quite likely that PETA finds incredulous Dr. Lattin’s statement that understanding how hormones and the brain affect stress resilience is highly applicable to the survival of different species in response to environmental challenge. It is possible that this is simply be because PETA and its representatives do not understand how science works (at best, e.g., here). Or perhaps it is a case of deliberate ignorance (at worst). But one does not need to look far to understand the relationship between Dr. Lattin’s work and the environmental challenges that are well appreciated and of deep concern. In PETA’s own paraphrasing of Dr. Lattin, it is first obvious that she does not talk about climate change, but environmental challenges. This may include climate change, but could also include factors such as food scarcity and increased predation. Here, PETA uses the buzz word, climate change, perhaps because it is easily relatable, but it is used out of context to Dr. Lattin’s own statement.


Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “My current research focuses on one type of stressor that has direct implications for the conservation of endangered and threatened species—bringing birds into captivity. The transition from the wild to captivity is a strong psychological stressor, even if birds have unlimited food and water and large clean cages.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: Here, Lattin claims that her experiments will somehow provide insight into the best way to mitigate the effects of captivity on endangered birds taken from their natural habitats. In a 2017 paper,[21] she purports that in order to do so, it is important to know whether these effects are caused by the release of the hormone corticosterone or other physiological effects. To test this theory, she treated one group of birds with mitotane, a drug that limits the production of corticosterone by the adrenal glands.

Both the mitotane and non-mitotane groups experienced an increase in beak wiping—a sign of distress—the longer they were kept in captivity. While the mitotane-treated group experienced a smaller increase in this behavior, the effect was slight. Moreover, this group still lost the same amount of weight and demonstrated other stress-related types of behavior, such as increased feeding and feather ruffling, to the same degree as the control group.

Despite this underwhelming result, Lattin draws the sweeping conclusion that “experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes.” She seems to be making the absurd suggestion that captive birds should be subjected to the stress of an injection every other day in order to very slightly reduce one stress-related form of behavior.

When researchers or wildlife officials take the extreme step of capturing endangered birds to treat injuries, translocate them, or include them in breeding programs, they aim to lessen the stress experienced during capture and captivity. The birds might initially be hooded, kept in a quiet room, and provided with appropriate perching material. If Lattin truly wanted to design an experiment that aimed to explore what these unfortunate captives experience, she would have tried to reduce their stress instead of cruelly compounding it.

PETA again appears to be deliberately disingenuous here, selectively reporting. The first issue worth pointing out is that Dr. Lattin does not make a sweeping conclusion, but clearly states,

Lattin: “…our data suggest that experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes.”

We might ask whether PETA understands the distinction between conditional statements and sweeping conclusions (may mitigate versus will mitigate). PETA also fails to acknowledge the great lengths that Dr. Lattin went to avoid pain and unnecessary distress in the administration of the drug mitotane:

We also wished to avoid muscle damage that can be caused by intramuscular administration. Therefore, we injected mitotane subcutaneously over the breast muscle every other day, which can reduce circulating CORT in house sparrows to the low physiological range …”

Finally, it is now unsurprising given all of the misrepresentation of facts that no consideration beyond PETA’s own agenda is given to Dr. Lattin’s clear statement of applicability in this paper:

“Broadly, our results emphasize that researchers should take behavioral and physiological differences between free-living animals and captives into consideration when designing studies and interpreting results. Further, time in captivity should be minimized when birds will be reintroduced back to the wild.


What can conclude from this (very lengthy) analysis?  In part, that simple lies are easier to convey than are complicated truths. Readers here already know that and have seen any number of similar campaigns in which research is misrepresented. Campaigns against animal research continue despite the fact that the facts, context, and accurate information about the rationale, conduct, and care for animals appears in scientific papers, in scientists’ public presentations, in a range of venues, websites, books, and papers.

It is also true though that it takes a great deal of time to address each of the claims so easily made and publicized by groups like PETA.  And so often, the claims remain unaddressed. Groups like PETA may well bank on the fact that most scientists and institutions do not have – or will not take – the time to rebut claims. And they would be correct, as we’ve often seen.

In this case though, Dr. Lattin has engaged in rebuttal. It falls to the rest of the scientific community to join her. Not only in defense of her work, but in defense of public interests in making informed decisions on the basis of facts, context, and serious consideration.


  • Her research has been cited hundreds of times by other scientists doing research on stress, conservation, and health, including scientists working on many other bird species (including endangered species like the Florida Scrub Jay and Egyptian vultures), and dozens of other species of animals, including fish, newts, frogs, snakes, sea turtles, lizards, dolphins, whales, mice, rats, voles, ground squirrels, hamsters, cheetahs, tigers, and monkeys.
  • She has pioneered new techniques in house sparrows that allow for less invasive ways of studying stress – for example, her work validating the technique of extracting hormones from feathers, and her current research using PET and CT imaging techniques to study the brain and body.
  • Her studies on sparrows have clear and direct conservation applications. For example, her research showing that birds caught right before and during molt dramatically altered their normal physiology in response to captivity stress suggests that conservation efforts using translocation and reintroductions of birds should avoid capturing birds at these times.
  • Her research showing rapid changes in body composition in captive wild birds demonstrates that the amount of time in captivity should be minimized for wild birds that need to be released.
  • Her research showing that oil-exposed animals cannot mount a normal hormonal response to an injection of adrenocorticotropin hormone (a minimally invasive technique that does not require euthanizing animals) shows that this technique could be used to compare animals in a population where oil effects are suspected to animals in a reference, unimpacted population.
  • Many of her studies also make major contributions to understanding fundamental biological processes that are similar across all groups of vertebrate animals. For example, her research demonstrates that animals are capable of regulating hormone levels somewhat independently from receptor levels in different tissues, and that gene expression and protein expression appear to be regulated separately for stress hormone receptors in the brain. This work helps us understand how the body regulates and responds to hormonal signals.

Speaking of Research

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Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals

One of the cornerstone ideas of the animal rights movement is that there are no fundamental differences between humans and animals: humans are just animals, only more intelligent (Ryder, 1991). Therefore, some argue, since having a larger brain is just another quirk, like having larger tusks, animals should have many of the same rights as humans. In particular, they should have a right to life, a right to freedom and a right not be used by humans. Moreover, the well-being of humans should not be put above the well-being of animals (Singer, 1991), so that doing research on animals cannot be justified by improvements in human health, as scientists claim (Ringach, 2011; Bennett and Ringach, 2016). Of course, all of this flies in the face of the values of all human societies from prehistory to date, which have used animals for food, clothing, work and entertainment. No matter, says the animal right activist, that is unethical and has to stop (Reagan, 1985).

In the past, justification for human primacy over animals came from religions that stated that humans are superior to animals because they have an immortal soul, and that God commanded humans to rule over animals. However, the Theory of Evolution and modern physiology have pushed back against those beliefs, showing that there is an evolutionary continuum between animals and humans and that there are no fundamental differences between the physiology of the humans and other mammals (Rachels, 1990) . If the only difference between humans and animals is that of a higher intelligence, does that justify that we treat ourselves better than the animals? Or is this just self-interested behavior, “speciesism”, as the animal rights proponent Richard Ryder has called it (Ryder, 1991)? To strengthen their case, animal right proponents invoke the “marginal case”: these include infants and those with significant mental impairment who, lacking superior intelligence, then should presumably be treated the same way as animals (Reagan, 1985; Singer, 1991). Otherwise, they argue, we should be prepared to give animals the same rights that we readily give these marginal case humans.

However, modern neuroscience has in fact uncovered many differences between humans and the rest of the animals that makes us unique. These differences are not limited to a quantitative difference in intelligence but extend to many other mental and behavioral abilities that make us completely unique (Penn et al., 2008), a qualitatively different type of being.  Below I provide a list of the most important of those abilities.


  1. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand what other people are feeling and thinking [pp. 172-178 in (Blackmore, 2004); pp. 48-54 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. We do that by running inside our heads a model of what is happening in other person’s mind. Of course, the model is not always right, but nevertheless it is extremely valuable because it lets us predict the behavior of people around us. Theory of mind seems to require the right anterior insula, a part of the brain cortex that evolved very rapidly in apes. The function of the right anterior insula is to create hypothetical models of the internal state of our body in different circumstances (Craig, 2010, 2011). For example, when we imagine what it would feel like to stab our toe, is the right anterior insula doing that. Likewise, the right anterior insula can make a model of the internal state of the body of another person. Of course, theory of mind is much more than that and involves the cognitive abilities of many other parts of the brain. Research on theory of mind has revealed it to be uniquely human (Penn and Povinelli, 2007), although some studies claims to have found it in rudimentary form in chimpanzees (Call and Tomasello, 2008; Yamamoto et al., 2013). One negative aspect of theory of mind is that it often creates the delusion of attributing human consciousness to inanimate objects or animals. The same way we project our thoughts and feelings to a person that we see behaving in a way similar to us, we project human thoughts and feelings to an animal or an object we see doing something that resembles human behavior. This delusional form of theory of mind is responsible for the anthropomorphizing of animals that is so common in modern culture.
  1. Episodic memory. There are two basic forms of memory: procedural and declarative [pp. 303-306 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. Procedural memory is present in both humans and animals and consists in the retention of perceptual, motor and cognitive skills that are then expressed non-consciously. For example, when we walk, swim, ski, listen to music, type on a keyboard or process the visual information we get from a television screen, we use procedural memory. Declarative memory stores information about facts and beliefs about the world, and can be further divided into semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory is about facts in the world that stand by themselves, independently of our self, whereas episodic memory is remembering things that happened to us. That is, episodic memory retains events as they were experienced by ourselves in a particular place and time. Episodic memory appears to be uniquely human, because it involves subjective experiences, a concept of self and subjective time. This is important because it allows us to travel mentally in time through subjective experiences, while animals are locked in the present of their current motivational state.


  1. Humans emotions. Mammals, birds and some other animals have a set of six basic emotions listed by Ekman: anger, fear, disgust, joy, sadness and surprise. However, we humans are able to feel many other emotions that regulate our social behavior and the way we view the world: guilt, shame, pride, honor, awe, interest, envy, nostalgia, hope, despair, contempt and many others. While emotions like love and loyalty may be present in mammals that live in hierarchical societies, emotions like guilt, shame and their counterparts pride and honor seem to be uniquely human. There is much controversy these days on whether dogs feel guilt and shame, there is evidence that they do not, but they may also have acquired this emotion as a way to interact with humans. What is clear is that many of the emotions that we value as human are not present in animals.



  1. Empathy and compassion. Empathy is defined as the capacity to feel what another person is feeling from their own frame of reference. It is a well-established fact that many animals react to distress by other animals by showing signs of distress themselves. However, this does not seem to represent true empathy as defined above, but a genetically encoded stress response in anticipation of harm. Since empathy requires feeling what the other person is feeling from their own frame of reference, it seems to require theory of mind. Only if we stripe the requirement of adopting the other’s frame of reference we can say that animals have empathy. Empathy involves the newly evolved anterior insula in humans (Preis et al., 2013), bonobos and chimpanzees (Rilling et al., 2012). Compassion is currently thought to be different from empathy because it involves many other parts of the brain. It seems to be associated with complex cultural and cognitive elements. Therefore, it seems safe to assume that animals are not able to feel compassion.
  1. Language and culture. Although animals do communicate with each other using sounds, signs and body language, human language is a qualitative leap from any form of animal communication in its unique ability to convey factual information and not just emotional states. In that, human language is linked to our ability to store huge amounts of semantic and episodic memory, as defined above. The human brain has a unique capacity to quickly learn spoken languages during a portal that closes around 5-6 years of age. Attempts to teach sign languages to apes has produced only limited success and can be attributed to a humanization of the brain of those animals, raised inside human culture. The effectiveness of spoken and written language to store information across many generations gave raise to human cultures. The working of the human brain cannot be understood without taking culture into account. Culture completely shapes the way we think, feel, perceive and behave. Although there are documented cases of transmission of learned information across generations in animals, producing what we could call an animal culture, no animal is as shaped by culture as we are.
  1. Esthetic sense or the appreciation of beauty also seems to be uniquely human. Of course, animals can produce great beauty in the form of colorful bodies, songs and artful behavior. What seems to be lacking is their ability to appreciate and value that beauty beyond stereotypical mating and territorial behaviors. Even attempts to teach chimps to produce art by drawing have largely failed.
  1. Ethics is the ability to appreciate fairness, justice and rights. It is at the very core of our ability to form stable societies and to cooperate to achieve common goals. It depends on theory of mind (which allows us to “put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes”); on social emotions like guilt, shame, pride and contempt; on empathy and compassion, and on cultural heritage. Lacking all those mental abilities, animals have no sense of ethics. Even though some studies have shown that monkeys have a primitive sense of fairness (particularly when it applies to their own interest), it is but a pale anticipation of our sense of justice. It simply goes to show how that ethics is rooted in our evolutionary history. The fact that animals cannot even remotely comprehend the concept of rights is a strong argument for why they should not have rights. What sense does it make to give animals something that they do not know that they lack?


  1. Extended consciousness. They question of what is consciousness has been called by scientists and philosophers “the hard problem” due to the difficulty of answering it (Blackmore, 2004). Therefore, the related question of whether animals have consciousness, or what animals have it, remains similarly unanswered in the strict sense. However, based on their behavior, we commonly assume that animals like cats, dogs and horses are conscious and able to make some autonomous decisions. On the other hand, unless we invoke some mystical definition of consciousness, it is safe to assume that animals with small nervous systems, like jellyfish, worms, starfish, snails and clams have no consciousness whatsoever. They are like plants: living beings able to react to the environment as automatons. That leaves a lot of animals for which it is hard to guess whether they are conscious or not: insects, fish, octopi, lizards and small mammals like mice and rats. What has been becoming clear is that we humans possess a kind of consciousness that no other animal has: the ability to see ourselves as selves extending from the pass to the future [pp. 309-321 (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. This special kind of consciousness has been called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “extended consciousness” [Chapter 7 in (Damasio, 1999)] and allow us a sort of “mental time travel” to relive events in the past and predict what may happen to us in the future (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). Extended consciousness is based on our ability to have episodic memory and theory of mind. Episodic memory configures remembered events around the image of the self, whereas theory of mind allows us to create a model of our own mind as it was during a past event or to hypothesize how it would be in a future event. I should also point out that a few animals (apes, dolphins and elephants) may turn out to have episodic memory, theory of mind and hence extended consciousness. However, this is still very much in doubt.
  1. Suffering and happiness. It is a common mistake to confuse suffering with pain and happiness with joy. Pain is the representation of a bodily state and the emotion associated with it (Craig, 2003). Likewise, joy is an emotion associated with an excited but pleasant body state in an agreeable environment. Suffering and happiness are much deeper than that, and refer to the totality of a mental state, encompassing cognition, emotion and state of consciousness. Although suffering and happiness are normally associated with certain emotions, there is not always a correspondence with them. For example, one can be happy while feeling scared or sad, or suffer even in the presence of a passing joy. The error of philosophers like Peter Singer (Singer, 1991) and Tom Reagan (Reagan, 1985) is that they consider suffering as something that occurs independently of cognition and other mental abilities, when it does not. Arguably, happiness and suffering require some continuity in time, which would seem to require extended consciousness. Furthermore, conceptions of happiness extending to antiquity refer to lifelong attitudes like hedonism (the quest for personal pleasure) and eudemonia (working to acquire virtue or to achieve goals that transcend oneself), pointing to the fact that human happiness depends on cultural values. In view of all this, we need to wonder whether happiness and suffering can exist in beings that have no episodic memory, no extended consciousness, no sense of self, and no culture. Can happiness and suffering really be attributed to animals lacking these mental abilities? Or is this an illusion, an anthropomorphizing caused by the overreaching of our theory of mind? Without going to that extreme, it is quite clear that we humans have a capacity to be happy and to suffer that goes far beyond what animals can experience. So human suffering counts more than any suffering than an animal could have.

There are many more differences between human and animals. However, the ones that I have listed here are important because they give us our special feeling of humaneness. All of them are based on scientific facts about the human mind that are slowly being unraveled by neuroscience, not on religious beliefs or on ideology. However, what cannot be based on science is the value we attribute to those differences. Ultimately, this is a decision based on our ethical intuition. Still, for most people what determines how much consideration we should give to a being is its ability to be conscious; to feel empathy; to feel guilt and pride and shame and all other human emotions; to be happy as we are happy and to suffer like we suffer.

An important corollary of the ideas proposed here is to utterly refute the “marginal case” argument. Thus, even when a human brain is damaged by disease, accident or old age, most of the properties that I have listed here remain because they are deeply engrained in the way the human brain works. Theory of mind and extended consciousness appear early in human life and are the last things to go in a deteriorating brain. It takes coma to deprive us of them. A person may have a reduced intelligence or other cognitive disabilities, but s/he still has theory of mind, empathy, compassion, extended consciousness and all those human emotions. That is why when we encounter those people we recognize them as humans and we know we should treat them as humans. They are not animals and should never be treated as such. Intelligence is just a tiny part of what it means to be human.

Another important idea is that there are vast differences in the mental abilities of animals and, therefore, in the way they should be treated. Many animals, like jellyfish, worms and clams, do not have any mental capabilities at all, do not feel pain, and can be treated the same as plants. In the other side of the mental spectrum, it is possible that we will find that the great apes, dolphins and elephants have some form of theory of mind and extended consciousness, and therefore deserve a special treatment compared to other animals. Dog and cats have evolved special ways to communicate with humans that make them special in our eyes. So, when it comes to ethical consideration, animals should not be put in a general category, but each species should be assigned its own value. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the quandary of not being able to rid our dog of fleas because these insects have the same “rights” as the dog. This is, in fact, what we have been doing all along: to establish a hierarchy of animals that deserve more or less consideration based on their mental abilities, putting humans at the top. Speciesism is unavoidable because we cannot treat different species of animals the same way.

Let me finish by saying that this is not an argument to treat animals cruelly or poorly. It is only an argument to treat humans better than animals and to keep using animals for our benefit. We should care about the welfare of animals, even as we try to understand how similar and how different they are from ourselves. What moves us to treat animals well is our empathy, our compassion, our sense of fairness and our cultural values. Things that animals do not have. Ultimately, we must treat animals right not because of what they are, but because of who we are.

by Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.


Bennett Allyson J, Ringach Dario L (2016) Animal Research in Neuroscience: A Duty to Engage. Neuron 92:653-657.

Blackmore S (2004) Consciousness: An Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Call J, Tomasello M (2008) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends Cogn Sci 12:187-192.

Craig AD (2003) A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends Neurosci 26:303-307.

Craig AD (2010) The sentient self. Brain Struct Funct 214:563-577.

Craig AD (2011) Significance of the insula for the evolution of human awareness of feelings from the body. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1225:72-82.

Damasio AR (1999) The Feeling of What Happens.

Gazzaniga MS (2008) Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Penn DC, Povinelli DJ (2007) On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological sciences 362:731-744.

Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31:109-130; discussion 130-178.

Preis MA, Schmidt-Samoa C, Dechent P, Kroener-Herwig B (2013) The effects of prior pain experience on neural correlates of empathy for pain: An fMRI study. Pain 154:411-418.

Rachels J (1990) Created from Animals: The Moral Implication of Darwinism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reagan T (1985) The Case for Animal Rights. In: In Defence of Animals (Singer P, ed), pp 13-26. New York: Basic Blackwell.

Rilling JK, Scholz J, Preuss TM, Glasser MF, Errangi BK, Behrens TE (2012) Differences between chimpanzees and bonobos in neural systems supporting social cognition. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 7:369-379.

Ringach DL (2011) The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research. American Journal of Medical Sciences 342:305-313.

Ryder R (1991) Speciecism. In: Animal Experimentation: The Moral Issues (Baird RM, Rosenbaum SE, eds), pp 24-34. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Singer P (1991) The Significance of Animal Suffering. In: Animal Experimentation: The Moral Issues (Baird RM, Rosenbaum M, eds), pp 57-66. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (2007) The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behav Brain Sci 30:299-313; discussion 313-251.

Yamamoto S, Humle T, Tanaka M (2013) Basis for cumulative cultural evolution in chimpanzees: social learning of a more efficient tool-use technique. PLoS One 8:e55768.

Pro-Test: The demonstration that changed a decade

“No more threats, no more fear, animal research wanted here”.

On February 25th 2006 that chant, and many others, rang out across the city of Oxford. Around 1,000 students, scientists and patients marched through the streets both to demonstrate support for the building of a new animal research facility, and to protest against the animal rights extremism that plagued scientists in Oxford and beyond.

The first Pro-Test rally. Image by Nick Anthis

The first Pro-Test rally. Image by Nick Anthis

Rival protesters set for bitter clash over animal testing lab” – wrote the Times. Police lined the streets – with horses and riot vans – as did journalists from all over the world. The world’s first pro-animal-research-rally, and on the same day, in the same city, as a national animal rights demonstration. The city of Oxford held its breath in anticipation. For all of us organising the event – myself included – we had no idea what would happen.

But how did we get here?

Animal rights extremism had been an intractable problem in the UK for decades, but the mid-1990s brought activists a string of successes. Campaigns in 1996 – 1997 shut down both Consort kennels and Hillgrove cat farm, which bred dogs and cats (respectively) for animal facilities. In 1999 the SHAC campaign began its 15-year campaign against HLS; the same year also marked the start of a campaign against Newchurch Guinea Pig Farm. Extremism continued unabated; in 2004 activists dug up and stole the remains of Gladys Hammond – a family member of the owners of the guinea pig farm. After petrol bombs and further threats the farm closed. The same year, the University of Cambridge abandoned plans to build a new primate research facility after intense pressure from activists including the activist group SPEAC (Stop Primate Experimentation at Cambridge).

In 2004, shortly after Cambridge abandoned plans for its new lab, the University of Oxford laid out plans for a new animal research facility which would combine many of the smaller labs dotted around Oxford into one new facility with improved welfare for animals. SPEAC activists immediately moved to Oxford, renaming the group SPEAK. The extremism that had plagued Cambridge also moved to Oxford. In July 2004 construction on the new lab was halted for six months after the original building contractors – facing intense harassment from activists – pulled out of the project (as had many other firms connected to the building work). In the summer of 2005, with building work restarted, extremists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) targeted the students.

Boathouse Fire July 2005

The arson attack on the University of Oxford college boathouses caused approximately £500,000 worth of damage.

“We must target professors, teachers, heads, students, investors, partners, supporters and ANYONE that dares to deal in any part of the University in any way. There is no time for debate and there is no time for protest, this is make or break time and from now on, ANYTHING GOES.” – ALF Communique

The targeting of student run, student owned boathouses mixed with threats against all university members shocked the student population. But it wasn’t the activists that would set the student population alight – it was a 16-year old school dropout – Laurie Pycroft.

Laurie PycroftPlacardLaurie Pycroft walked through the streets of Oxford in January 2006. On his way, he came across an animal rights demonstration protesting the construction of the new animal lab. Laurie was bright, with a keen interest in science. He knew the only reason his grandfather was alive was because of surgery developed in animals. So Laurie went into a shop and bought a pen, and paper, writing “Support Progress – Build the Oxford Lab!”. He stood outside the demonstration holding his sign aloft. After receiving comments of support by passing members of the public, and screaming abuse by a number of activists, Laurie went home.

I got home quite late that evening. I hung up my coat, made my way to my room, sat at my computer, and made an entry about the whole incident on my blog. Within a few minutes, the comments started flooding in, with messages of support such as: “Genius! You truly are a hero to the people of Oxford! You’ve got to organise another pro-test.” – Laurie Pycroft

From one anonymous commenter, the Pro-Test name was born. News of Laurie’s one man demonstration hit the student press and a number of students – including myself – got in touch with Laurie to offer him our support.

“What do we want. The Oxford Lab. When do we want it? Now!”

In four crazy week we organised a demonstration that would be reported on almost every major news network in the UK. Despite the  proximity of animal rights activists and Pro-Test-ers, the event when off without violence. Mild-mannered scientists shouted along to chants. Students raised hastily created placards above their heads. The mood was positive despite efforts from animal rights groups to force the climate of fear upon the rally.

“Hundreds of police, some on horseback, prevented the two groups, which were at one stage just 20 yards away from each other, from clashing. On two occasions, anti-vivisectionists broke out towards the main march before being surrounded by police and moved away.” – The Guardian

It was a huge success. Debates about animal research raged across the media. Documentary makers lined up to tell the story of Pro-Test. The world-famous debating chamber – the Oxford Union – voted against a motion that “This house would not test on animals” by a whopping 85%. In preparation for a second rally in June, Prof Sir Robert Winston wrote in The Guardian:

“How disgraceful that a 16-year-old boy has put the medical and scientific establishment, drug companies and universities to shame.


It is time my colleagues got real. All British universities doing worthwhile research use animals, and, instead of hiding, they should be boasting of their achievements. Pharmaceutical companies could do far more to promote investigations that are humane, ethical and legal. Scientists should demonstrate the care taken in their research and the benefits it brings to society. And government? Shockingly, my family feels nervous because I speak out on animal research. So politicians have a duty to pursue animal extremists with vigour.”

Over the next two years the whole tenor of the debate changed – scientists became more willing to speak out – filling a vacuum that animal rights groups had filled with misinformation. In November 2008 the Oxford lab finally opened.

Speaking of Research owes its existence to Pro-Test. As the original spokesman for Pro-Test, I spent six months in the US, supported by Americans for Medical Progress, whereupon I founded Speaking of Research. As an organisation we have supported subsequent Pro-Test movements all over the world.

We supported the founding of Pro-Test for Science and helped it organise its first rally in Los Angeles after Prof Jentsch’s car was firebombed. We supported Pro-Test Italia in its first major rally in Milan. The successes of these rallies owed much to the actions of one sixteen year old boy.

Pro-Test march snakes along Westwood

Pro-Test for Science rally marches to support medical research

David Jentsch, the founder of Pro-Test for Science wrote:

“The resolve, determination and commitment to scientific research demonstrated by Laurie and the UK Pro-test 10 years ago during their confrontations with animals rights groups brought hope and inspiration to those of us in Southern California who were the targets of extremist activities. Without the example of UK Pro-test and its leaders, it’s hard to imagine how Pro-test for Science, or its in a passionate, informed and successful campaign to advocate for our scientific community, could have come to be.”

Pro-Test helped drive openness in the UK, and a fightback against extremism abroad. Every person who marched on the 25th February 2006 should be proud of the part they played.

And Laurie? He followed his dream. Studies Physiology at the University of Oxford and is now studying for a DPhil in Functional Neurosurgery at the university – even (sometimes) working in the very lab he helped to build!

Tom Holder

Guest Post. How to Engage with the Public About Animal Research: Society for Neuroscience Panelists Offer Strategies to Scientists During Annual Meeting

Today’s guest post is from Amanda Dettmer, Ph.D.,  a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Dr. Dettmer is a developmental psychobiologist whose research examines the early life organization of sociocognitive development in nonhuman primates. She received her PhD in Neuroscience & Behavior from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. You can follow her on Twitter.
Dr. Amanda Dettmer

Dr. Amanda Dettmer


During their annual meeting in Chicago, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) yesterday held a 2-hour lunchtime session dedicated to public outreach concerning animals in research. The panelists were international experts on communicating the importance of animal research to the public, and they offered invaluable advice to the hundreds of scientists in attendance.

While it’s clear that scientists – and the institutions that employ them – must be more proactive in communicating the importance of their research and the animal models they use, the panelists offered several tangible pieces of advice on how to achieve this goal. The strategies offered cater to researchers working with various animal models and, more importantly, with varying degrees of comfort in engaging the public in their research.

The session opened with remarks by the chair of the SFN’s Animals in Research Committee, Dr. Michael Goldberg, who stated, “We’ve been staying under the radar to avoid animals rights activists, and this strategy is not working,” particularly with respect to nonhuman primates in research. Earlier this year, Goldberg and the President of SFN, Dr. Steve Hyman, submitted a letter to Science in response to an article published there, “Embattled Max Planck neuroscientist quits primate research.”

AM15_Logo_CMYK_Horizontal_SavedForWebThe first panelist, Dr. Rolf Zeller, is the founding president of the Basel Declaration Society (BDS) and a founding signatory of the Basel Declaration, by which researchers recognize the necessity of animal research in biomedical research, and endorse the highest standards of ethically responsible animal research. Stating that researchers will “never convince PETA, but we can convince the public,” Zeller stressed the importance of engaging the public and offered the BDS’ most effective strategies for communication in Europe: regular media training sessions for trainees and established scientists, persistent use of social media, and open access publications on scientific communication. Zeller offered his “Golden Rules” for public outreach, which included:

  • 1) Receive good training in science communication,
  • 2) Be proactive and honest about your research,
  • 3) Discuss your animal research with colleagues, especially any who might be skeptical, so that they understand why it is important,
  • 4) Make it clear you care about animals,
  • 5) Explain why animal research is essential for patients, and
  • 6) Join the BSD and sign the Declaration to be part of a proactive community.
Pro-Test Italia

Pro-Test Italia

Dario Padovan, President of Pro-TEST Italia, a non-profit that “aims to promote and disseminate to the public correct knowledge on scientific research,” followed with an emboldening presentation on how the group increased positive public perception of animal research in Italy with regular strategies easily and equally employable in the US: 1) active, daily activity on social media (the group responds to every incorrect/negative Facebook comment on their page, 2) engaging young scientific experts to reach their contemporaries (saying “most users of social media are 18-34 years”), 3) regularly producing YouTube videos that show detailed primate research in a humane and responsible way (which receive tens of thousands of views and >90% net “thumbs up” ratings), 4) fighting fire with fire by creating satirical anti-animal rights propaganda, and 5) getting patients who benefit from animal research involved in public outreach.

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Dr. Michael Mustari, Director of the Washington National Primate Research Center, then highlighted the outstanding care that nonhuman primates at his, and all of the other six, National Primate Research Centers in the US, receive, as well as the significant contributions primates have made in the advances of such diseases as HIV/AIDS, polio, ebola, and Parkinson’s disease.

Mustari said, “People who argue against nonhuman primate work do not pay attention to reality.” He drove home the need to engage with the public by showing the type of video that the public needs to see regularly to understand the value of primates in research, like this one showing a quadriplegic serving himself a beer for the first time in 13 years, thanks to advances made possible by primate research. Mustari ended by discussing the inspiring global outreach the WaNPRC performs under the directorship of Dr. Randy Kyes, Head of the Division of Global Programs at the WaNPRC.

Jason Goldman

Jason Goldman

Dr. Jason Goldman, an animal-researcher-turned-science-writer, rounded out the session by sharing lessons he’s learned from animals in communicating to a variety of audiences. Using brown-headed cowbirds and betta fish as examples of animals that change their messages based on who’s listening, Goldman said, “Animals have learned what I tell scientists over and over: Different messages are required for different audiences.” Goldman offered tangible pieces of advice for burgeoning (and established) science communicators, including 1) tell personal stories whenever possible and evoke emotion (using Cecil the lion as an example), 2) use simple visuals and avoid complex graphics (even popular infographics can be hard to digest), use memegenerator.net to make your own memes to communicate science on social media (this is perhaps the easiest tip to pick up, as I was able to create my own – and first! – meme in about 30 seconds during his presentation), and 4) be relatable and make the public feel smart, not stupid.

The session concluded with a Q &A session from the participants seeking additional advice on best ways to communicate the importance of animal research to the public when you feel like your institution is resistant to the idea, how to deal with the internal struggle of loving animals while conducting research with them, and more. Given that the session went 20 minutes over its scheduled time, it was clear the audience found it an invaluable resource.

Later in the afternoon, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, gave a Special Presentation to SFN attendees in which he discussed recent advances in neuroscience with a particular emphasis on the BRAIN initiative. Though he rarely mentioned animal models in his talk, he did field anonymous questions from the audience afterward, one of which asked 1) what his personal opinion was on the role of animals, especially nonhuman primates, in the BRAIN Initiative, and 2) what concrete steps the NIH Directorship was taking to engage the public in the importance of animal research.

Collins stated that although the NIH worked with the Institute of Medicine to end chimpanzee research in the US, this “should not be seen as a reflection of how we feel about other nonhuman primates in research.”  He concluded by acknowledging the need for primates in some of the more invasive studies for the BRAIN Initiative that cannot be conducted in humans, and by underscoring the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.

Amanda Dettmer

Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.

What happens when an animal rights activist tours an animal research lab?

What would you do if an activist group, whose Facebook wall features the extremist group the ALF, asked to tour your labs? While many people would ignore their request, the University of Guelph (Canada) invited the individual in to tour the facility and answer their questions.

Animal Rights Compliance Facebook page

Animal Rights Compliance Facebook page

A post on the Animal Rights Compliance Facebook page on the 12th September 2015 states that they believe in “The complete abolition vivisection, animal research or drug testing cosmetics, testing of consumer products on animals. Infractions need to be dealt with by fines and minimum incarceration times.” So one might not expect a glowing review on Facebook when the (anonymous) individual reported back.

See transcript of picture at the bottom of this post

See transcript of picture at the bottom of this post

Instead we get an honest account of a research institution which is working hard to improve animal welfare. Huge congratulations to the University of Guelph, and particularly Mary Fowler, the animal facility manager, as they once again show that openness trumps misinformation. The report shows how many people, including activists, are unaware of conditions in labs and can be surprised and impressed when they discover how animals are really treated.

“Mary was very transparent with the University’s policies and I was given a tour of where, currently, only 6 dogs are housed. I was impressed with several issues; The University has extensive dogwalking/caregiving procedures, as well as adoption policies using staff, students and volunteers. It works in co-ordination with the local and area Humane Societies. My understanding is that their treatment models are evolving all the time, with the replacement of live animals with other means whenever possible. Another example is that spay and neutered pets are regularly returned to the Humane Society for adoption. “

A full transcript exists at the bottom of this post for those who cannot see the image. Credit is also due to the unnamed activist who toured the facility and reported back – it’s great to see people be willing to go in with an open mind and report back honestly on what they saw.

Read more about how the University of Guelph gets involved in outreach activities about their animal research through public engagement, internal communication and tours. Also, read their public statement on animal research.

Major advances in the health of humans and animals can be attributed to research using live animals. As an institution, the University of Guelph supports the principle that animals may be used in science only where necessary and where there are no alternative means that will produce the same results to benefit the health of humans and animals.

The University of Guelph has a long history of conducting innovative, multidisciplinary research with partners at other universities, government, and from the private sector. Through partnerships with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food the university plays a key role in research and teaching in the life sciences and agriculture. With a broad range of species, from laboratory rodents to farm animals, fish and wildlife, the University of Guelph has one of Canada’s largest and most versatile animal care and use programs. The University continues to be on the leading edge of animal-based science, the training of highly qualified personnel, and the promotion of welfare and health advancements for animals and humans through research and teaching

Visitors to the open house at the University of Guelph Central Animal Facility learn about research and environmental enrichment over lunch. Credit: Janet Gugan

Visitors to the open house at the University of Guelph Central Animal Facility learn about research and environmental enrichment over lunch. Credit: Janet Gugan

Speaking of Research


If the image from the activist did not come up on your computer, here is a full transcript.

MEETING WITH MARY FOWLER, MANAGER, ANIMAL FACILITIES OFFICE OF RESEARCH, University OF Guelph, Sept.16/15: I had the pleasure of meeting with Ms. Fowler today, at my request, as I was inquiring about the University’s policies on using live animals. esp. dogs in research. Mary was very transparent with the University’s policies and I was given a tour of where, currently, only 6 dogs are housed. I was impressed with several issues; The University has extensive dogwalking/caregiving procedures, as well as adoption policies using staff, students and volunteers. It works in co-ordination with the local and area Humane Societies. My understanding is that their treatment models are evolving all the time, with the replacement of live animals with other means whenever possible. Another example is that spay and neutered pets are regularly returned to the Humane Society for adoption. It is also my understanding that the University does not do such vivisection procedures as cosmetic testing. While we would all like to see all animals cage-free, I would say a greater good appears to being served when animals are treated with respect and given some sort of a life, then adopted out, on average between 6-8 months. I am not sure how else Vets could learn to save animal lives. The point recognized, I think, is that there is a general agreement about needless animal suffering. Thanks again to Mary and her staff.

World Week to Speak Up About Animal Research

Banner at UW-Madison, April 2015.

Banner at UW-Madison, April 2015.

Each April a group of people committed to ending all use of animals for any purpose, including medical and scientific research, orchestrate events for a week they designate World Week for Animals in Laboratories (WWAIL). Among the primary objectives of WWAIL is to generate media coverage via picketing and protests. The event often culminates in World Day for Animals in Laboratories (WDAIL).

WWAIL events are primarily coordinated by Michael Budkie, leader of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN). Budkie is also known for previous misrepresentation of animal research and its rebuttal by federal agencies. Budkie’s group is funded primarily by the Mary T. and Frank L. Hoffman Foundation, a “Biblically based organization” that believes “our call to mission is to restore God’s original creation intent of a plant based diet (Genesis 1:29-30).”  The  mission of the Hoffman Foundation  is quite clear: “To promote through education the elimination of the use of animals in biomedical research and testing, their use as food, or their use for any and all commercial purposes…

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 18, 2015).

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 18, 2015).

SAEN is like other absolutist groups whose position is that no matter what potential benefit the work may result in, no use of animals is morally justified. This extends across all animals – from fruit-fly to primate. Furthermore, all uses of animals, regardless of whether there are alternatives and regardless of the need, are treated identically. In other words, the use of a mouse in research aimed at new discoveries to treat childhood disease is considered morally equivalent to the use of a cow to produce hamburger, the use of an elephant in a circus, or a mink for a fur coat.

WWAIL protests are focused specifically on research. Thus, the sites for protest tend to be universities and other research institutions where scientists engage in work that produces the new knowledge and discoveries that drive scientific and medical progress to benefit humans, other animals, and the environment. The protests also target individual scientists with the kind of “home demonstrations” we’ve written about before (see more here and here).  In some cases the protests target businesses that support animal research.

Although the WWAIL activities vary some each year, they have a few consistent themes:

  • First, the primary objective appears to be media coverage. In fact, a quick view of the “successes” claimed by the primary organizing group shows that number of news stories is the prize accomplishment.
  • Second, the number of people participating in the activities is typically a few to a dozen.
  • Third, most of the materials used in the protests, social media coverage, and news releases reliably rely on outdated, out-of-context images and little reference to the protestors’ broad agenda and position.

We agree that public consideration of animal research is important. Stimulating serious, thoughtful education efforts and inclusive public dialogue about science, public interests, medical progress, and animal research are critically valuable to public decision-making and, ultimately, to global health. Informed decisions based in accurate information and in an understanding of the complex issues involved in animal research are in the best interest of the public, science, and other animals.

For that reason, many scientists, universities, educators, advocacy groups, and individuals engage in public outreach, education, and dialogue about scientific research with nonhuman animals. Their goal is to provide the public with accurate and thoughtful information about the range of issues that bear on decisions, policies, and practices related to animal research. Among those topics are:  how science works, its process, timescales between discovery and application, why animal research is conducted, in absence of alternatives; who benefits and what would be lost if it did not occur;  how animals in research are cared for, how ethical review occurs, and how regulation and oversight function.

None of these are simple issues, which is why there are many websites, books, articles, and interviews on the topic. WWAIL provides a unique opportunity for the research community to help point people towards these resources for education, dialogue, and serious consideration of animal research.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have one example of how to do just that.  The website referenced in the banner shown in the photos here (animalresearch.wisc.edu) provides extensive information about animal research.  The site provides facts, interviews, videos, photos, and links for those interested in learning more about why animal studies occur, the role that they play in scientific and medical progress that serve public interests, how research is conducted, its ethical consideration, and the practices, policies, regulation and oversight that govern animal care.

By contrast, we have the signs held by those below participating in a WWAIL sit-in at UW-Madison on Saturday.  Among the signs are photos of animals from other decades and other countries.  For example, note the repetitive use of a picture of Malish, a monkey who was involved in research in Israel in 2001 (not exactly relevant to UW).  We also see quotes by an actor and numbers that do not reflect those from UW-Madison.  None of these are difficult errors or misrepresentations to correct; but they probably won’t be corrected in absence of voices and sources to provide accurate information.

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 2015).

Sit-in at UW-Madison during WWAIL (April 2015).

This year, if your university or facility is among those that attract attention during WWAIL,  we ask that you join in the conversation by providing protestors, public, and media your own voice.  Whether it is via banners, websites, or talking with reporters– speak up for science and for public interests in advancing scientific understanding and medical progress. Although it may not matter to those committed to an absolutist agenda, it can matter to those who are interested in building a dialogue based in fact and serious consideration of the complex issues that surround public interests in the future of science, health, and medicine.

Speaking of Research