Just as University President Peter Salovey began his remarks at an alumni event in Seattle on Wednesday night, an animal welfare activist stormed the stage, calling for Yale to end postdoctoral associate Christine Lattin’s allegedly cruel experiments on sparrows.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal welfare group that organized the demonstration, claims that Lattin has killed 250 birds since 2008 in inhumane experiments, which study sparrows’ responses to stress. But in an email to the News earlier this month, Lattin — who began her research as a graduate student at Tufts University and continued after she arrived at Yale in 2014 — said her work complies with all existing laws and regulations, as well as the Ornithological Council’s guidelines for the Use of Wild Birds in Research. And according to University spokesperson Karen Peart, Lattin’s work has been approved by the University’s animal research officials.
On Wednesday, four PETA volunteers, carrying signs that read “Peter Salovey: Stop Cruel Sparrow Experiments” and “Christine Lattin kills sparrows in cruel tests,” stood at the entrance to Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture as Yale alumni filed in. Just as Salovey began to address the crowd, Marlene Blanco, an animal rights activist who is not affiliated with Yale, took the stage and denounced the University for supporting Lattin’s experiments.
“Yale experimenter Christine Lattin has been traumatizing wild sparrow birds for many years for studies that are meaningless to humans, birds and conservation efforts,” said Blanco, according to a video of the protest provided to the News by PETA. “Shame on Yale. Please stop these cruel experiments. Show compassion.”
The video shows Salovey walking over to Blanco from his podium, telling her “you’ve made your point,” and asking her to leave the stage.
But Blanco, brandishing a sign that read “Peter Salovey: Stop Cruel Sparrow Experiments,” continued to march up and down the stage and tell security that they will have to carry her out if they want her to stop.
Blanco told the News that security threatened to call the police if she did not leave.
After two minutes decrying Lattin’s experiments before the crowd of about 100, museum security escorted Blanco out of the venue, she said.
PETA accuses Lattin of feeding sparrows crude oil, restraining them in a cloth bag for long periods and inflicting wounds on the birds’ legs without pain medication, citing her scientific publications as evidence.
In her email to the News, Lattin denied that she “tormented birds in inhumane conditions.” She emphasized that she cares about the well-being of the birds and attempts to minimize any potential suffering or distress in her experiments.
According to Speaking of Research, an advocacy group for animal research, PETA’s claims are unfounded and exaggerated. The birds were only fed small amounts of oil in their food, equal to 1 percent of food weight. And while they were subject to a brief period of restraint in a breathable cloth bag, the birds were given anesthesia, a form of pain relief, when their legs were wounded.
Lattin said that birds brought into the lab are checked by a vet and treated for parasites. They are kept on natural light cycles in large confinements with perches and sand baths, where the birds can roll around to keep their feathers clean. In addition to regular checkups with veterinarians, she said, animal technicians and researchers monitor the birds’ weights each day to ensure that they do not lose too much weight in captivity.
Although PETA alleges that the results of Lattin’s experiments are inapplicable to humans and other species, Lattin said the hormone and neurotransmitter pathways she studies are similar in all vertebrate animals, including birds and mammals. She added that experiments on stress could lead to the development of new medicines and treatments or save endangered species.
“The reason I use wild birds in my research is that we can’t completely understand stress by only studying animals that were born in a cage, because captive-born animals don’t have the same range of physiological and behavioral responses to stress that wildlife and humans show,” Lattin said.
Peart told the News earlier this month that Yale’s animal care oversight officials found that there was no evidence of non-compliance or inappropriate care in Lattin’s research. Subsequently, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, a federal agency, also concluded that PETA’s allegations were unsubstantiated.
Earlier this month, PETA protested outside Woodbridge Hall during the Yale Corporation’s October meeting and held another demonstration outside Lattin’s home a few weeks ago.
For Lattin, who said she has received messages of support from more than 300 other scientists, PETA’s aggressive campaign against her has become “scary.” She told the News that the group publishes misinformation about her experiments next to photos of her and her home address, where she lives with her husband and child.
“PETA’s misinformation campaign has resulted in me receiving a number of very specific threats, some of which are really frightening, and which I have had to forward to the police,” she said.
Since May, Lattin said, she has received hundreds of hostile and threatening messages, including one in which someone threatened to hide in the bushes and wait for her. Others told Lattin she should be tortured or killed.
Lattin said PETA’s campaign has taught her the importance of openness and transparency in research. She is currently working on making the information on her professional website public, where all her publications are already available, more accessible to people without a background in science. She maintains a public Twitter account, where she frequently posts about her work.
In May, PETA filed a complaint with a district attorney in Massachusetts, where Lattin researched at Tufts, to request that the office investigate whether Lattin had violated anti-cruelty laws in her experiments. PETA has also sent letters to the institutions funding Lattin’s experiments, including the American Ornithologists’ Union and Yale. Tasgola Bruner, the media manager for PETA’s Laboratory Investigations and Regulatory Testing, said more than 150,000 people have called on Yale to cease its support for Lattin’s experiments through the organization’s action alert. PETA veterinarian Ingrid Taylor sent two letters to Salovey detailing instances of animal cruelty in Lattin’s experiments, but University officials have yet to respond, Bruner said.
Yale was most recently accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International in March 2016, according to Yale’s animal research web page.
Hailey Fuchs | email@example.com