Thirty Barn Owls and Luna Lovegood Take On Johns Hopkins

A federal complaint accusing the venerated research hospital of bird torture includes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and an actress from the “Harry Potter” movies as plaintiffs.

This still from a video published by Johns Hopkins University shows Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, with one of the barn owls he uses to study the brain. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Objecting to a brain study at Johns Hopkins that will lead to the death of its test subjects, 30 barn owls, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals went to court Thursday for injunctive relief.

Rather than sue Johns Hopkins itself, PETA wants a federal injunction against two U.S. officials it says are shirking their duty under the Animal Welfare Act: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Kevin Shea, who leads the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Listed nominally as the plaintiffs are the 30 barn owls being experimented upon at Johns Hopkins, with “next friends” PETA, former Maryland Secretary of Health Martin Wasserman, actress Evanna Lynch and a Johns Hopkins senior named Lana Weidgenant.

Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, is using the highly focused birds in an attempt to understand the brain circuits that control attention — and why people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder struggle to focus. 

Mysore’s grant application, which PETA obtained with a FOIA request, explains that the owls are studied via electrodes implanted into their brains while they are fully conscious. Once the owls’ skulls are cut open, PETA says the researchers install bolts to hold the birds’ heads in a fixed position. PETA says the owls are locked in restraining devices during the experiments, forced to look at screens for hours a day and bombarded with noises and light while their eyes are clamped open. 

“They are some of the most gruesome experiments going on in the country,” said Asher Smith, litigation manager with the PETA Foundation. “And they are performed by inexperienced students where trial and error is all part of the learning process.” 

Though the grant application specifies that owls get anesthesia to help alleviate the pain and distress, Smith notes that every owl will be “killed, as if they are disposable lab equipment,” once the research is over. 

This is a stipulation of Mysore’s grant application. “In the event that any bird shows persistent signs of distress, infection, or illness, or has difficulty flying normally or displays abnormal posture, it will be euthanized in consultation with veterinary personnel,” it states. “At the conclusion of an experimental study, all owls will be euthanized.”

This still from a video published by Johns Hopkins University shows Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, talking about how research of owls can help us study the human brain. (Image via Courthouse News)

Experiments on owls are legal because of the Helms amendment, named for former Senator Jesse Helms who in 2002 proposed a loophole to the 1966 Animal Welfare Act that excludes birds, mice and rats bred for use in research from the AWA definition of the term “animal.”

Johns Hopkins’ owls were all bred in captivity, according to the complaint.

But PETA says the Helms amendment should be struck down as an unconstitutional bill of attainder — essentially a legislative act that convicts and imposes a death sentence against a person without a trial. PETA claims the protections under bills of attainder are broad, and include animals. The group notes that its first victory came 30 years ago “on behalf of 17 macaque monkeys used for experimentation at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland.”

Like the Silver Spring monkeys, the Johns Hopkins owls have at least one celebrity advocate. Evanna Lynch, who credits her turn as Luna Lovegood in the “Harry Potter” franchise for spurring her awareness of owls, wrote a personalized letter to Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniel asking him to end the “vicious” and “grotesque” experiments.  

“These experiments are done with the intention of understanding attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but there is overwhelming evidence that the results of most experiments on animals can’t be applied to humans,” Lynch wrote. “There are better ways to study this condition.”

PETA claims that any results of the study will be useless, citing Mysore’s own admission during a seminar that experimenting on owls whose heads are fixed in place could “change the way the brain is solving problems” and allow researchers to misinterpret the results. 

While professor Mysore himself did not respond to a request for comment, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins said Thursday that the research has already yielded new and critical insights about ADHD. 

“Virtually every significant step toward alleviating human suffering, and better treating animal health needs, has been the result of insights learned from laboratory animals,” spokeswoman Karen Lancaster said in an email. “Such research is essential so that doctors can develop better interventions and treatments to help people in need.”

Lancaster emphasized that each animal study is constantly reviewed to meet federal requirements. 

“The care of our research animals is of paramount importance to us at Johns Hopkins, and we take this responsibility very seriously,” she wrote. 

Representatives for the U.S. Department of Agriculture declined to comment, citing a policy on pending litigation.

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