Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer

Sophie Huttner ’23 felt “definitely out of [her] body” as she stepped out of PETA’s abduction van on York Street Tuesday afternoon.

While many students sped past the painted van splattered with aliens and UFOs on their rush between classes, Huttner and some other Yale students stopped to investigate — even venturing to go inside. The PETA ‘Abduction’ Experience is a new tour the organization launched in October affiliated with their “Students Opposing Speciesism” campaign. Yale was the third stop in a trip that includes about ten research institutions PETA plans to visit before late November. 

“This is a non-graphic, non-disturbing experiment, or experience,” said Marnie Chambless, a lead tour administrator with PETA. “We’re just showing people what it’s like for animals in laboratories through the analogy of an alien abduction.”

Inside the van, visitors sit in a chair and strap on a virtual reality headset. A video plays during which two young people are stranded in a broken-down car and abducted by aliens. The video shows the two characters and the viewer being prodded as the aliens conduct experiments. 

In some scenes, the characters huddle together shivering in the corner of a cage, while in others, the aliens cram test tubes down the humans’ throats. Meanwhile, the aliens watch footage of humans experimenting on animals in research labs for inspiration. 

Joshua Muhumuza ’25 sits inside the PETA abduction virtual reality experience Thursday afternoon experiencing “a whirlwind of emotions.” (Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer)

PETA campaign assistant Racheli Holstein estimated that about 20 Yale students had participated in the abduction experience per day. In their previous stop at George Washington University, they said they had closer to 40 people each day. 

Huttner, who stopped by the van on Tuesday, said she had previously not thought much about animal research conducted at Yale. 

A vegetarian since she was 16, Huttner said there seem to be a fair amount of Yale students interested in animal welfare. 

During her time at Yale, she said the dining halls have had a lot of vegetarian options. 

“But I don’t think it’s always been like that,” she added. “So I think that that shows that at least on our campus, there are people that are making a difference just by making choices in our lives that can compound in terms of what, for example, your dining is choosing to make and how much meat they’re consuming.” 

Joshua Muhumuza ’25, who strapped on the VR headset when he visited the van Thursday afternoon, described it as “a whirlwind of emotions.” 

Muhumuza said he does not have a background in animal welfare activism but decided to try the experience because he likes animals. He said he is primarily involved in the humanities on campus and therefore not familiar with scientific animal research at Yale, adding that he found PETA’s presentation about animal research “concerning.” 

“If it’s as depicted in this video, of course Yale should make it as humane as possible even if that means stopping animal testing and finding other alternatives,” he told the News. 

Cambless, who has been working with PETA for a year and a half, said the organization wanted the experience to be grounded more in emotional exposure rather than exposure to graphic imagery. 

“We didn’t want to strap graphic footage to people’s faces and have it be too traumatizing,” she said. “We want people to be able to make that connection on their own.” 

Cambless told the News that the goal of the experience is to ignite support for PETA’s Research Modernization Deal. The deal encourages the National Institute of Health and other federal agencies to replace animal use in experiments with alternative models. Cambless told the News that she would like to see more colleges phasing out their animal testing programs and swapping them with programs that are less harmful and more “human-relevant.” 

“What we want is for students to really put themselves in the shoes of animals, with the hope that they will advocate for those animals,” Holstein said. She said this advocacy could even include students who may be required to work with animals in labs sparking conversations with their colleagues  about exploring alternatives. 

In 2017, PETA protestors targeted a former Yale postdoctoral associate Christine Lattin over her research with sparrows, with a handful of protesters interrupting a speech University President Peter Salovey delivered before an alumni group in Seattle that year. 

In an email to the News, University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote that University labs follow or exceed federal regulations and independent accreditation standards. 

Peart added that Yale scientists only use animal models for research when there are no other alternatives available. She wrote that the University also continuously monitors lab activities to ensure animal use in research and teaching is necessary. 

“As we continue to advance scientific knowledge and modern medicine, providing hope for millions of patients and their families, Yale scientists are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal models whenever possible,” Peart wrote.  

Yale research involving animals includes studies on new therapies and diagnostic tools for terminal diseases such as Parkinson’s, lung cancer, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s, Peart noted. According to Peart, Yale researchers mostly use rodents and fish as animal models, which comprise approximately 99 percent of all the animals in Yale labs. 

Those numbers are not publicly available online because inspection reports from the United States Department of Agriculture which contain animal totals do not include rodents and fish. This is because the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 does not cover all species. 

The abduction experience is scheduled to visit the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus on October 27 and 28, before visiting Harvard University from October 31 through November 2. 

Sophie Sonnenfeld is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor and covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a junior in Branford College double majoring in political science and anthropology.