Animal welfare groups have called for an end to medical experiments on birds following an Edinburgh University presentation by a US scientist who feeds sparrows crude oil during research.
Campaigners voiced concerns after a visit to Scotland’s capital this week by Louisiana State University (LSU) researcher, Dr Christine Lattin, who spoke at an international symposium attended by scientists from around the world.
Dr Lattin’s experiments are viewed as important for understanding the effect of stress in birds when some species are in decline and at the brink of extinction due to human activities. She argues that examining stress in wild birds to understand what negatively affects them means actions can be taken to help wildlife.
Edinburgh University argued that research involving animals plays a vital role in developing new treatments for serious diseases that affect people.
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, Dr Lattin’s experiments amount to “torture” and have involved “feeding crude oil to birds and withholding food from sparrows for 15 hours” before testing the birds’ fear responses.
The Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity, OneKind, said a “phase out of animal experimentation is crucial”.
Animal rights activists protested at Edinburgh University last Tuesday when Dr Lattin gave a presentation at the International Symposium on Avian Endocrinology, which brings together scientists from around the world. The field of avian endocrinology is interested in the hormones of birds.
As part of Dr Lattin’s research, oil is put in sparrow’s food to test whether very small amounts could act as an endocrine disrupting chemical. Endocrine disrupting chemicals block or interfere with normal hormone actions in the body that are necessary for health and survival.
Dr Lattin – assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at LSU – told The Ferret that understanding the physiology of stress is essential because it’s a “matter of life or death” for wild animals.
“As humans, we have an extra responsibility to try to understand this question because we are constantly exposing wild animals to stressors that we are responsible for,” she added. “Animal research like mine plays an essential part in the development of human and veterinary medicine, and in wildlife conservation and protection.
“Many species, like the American bald eagle, have been brought back from the brink of extinction. But we can only take actions to help wildlife if we first understand what is negatively affecting them, and how. This is the reason my research examining stress in wild birds is necessary.”
Dr Lattin also said that for five years she has been “repeatedly harassed by extremists” from PETA, adding: “It is important to understand that PETA is opposed to all research that uses animals, including life-saving research that has led to cancer breakthroughs, countless medications and therapies, and most recently, the Covid-19 vaccine.”
However, Kate Werner, senior campaigns manager at PETA, accused LSU of carrying out “despicably cruel experiments” on sparrows. Werner argued that sparrows belong in nature, not in a laboratory, and that LSU’s “past and present torment of countless animals represents a shameful waste of money and lives”.
She added: “These social, intelligent birds are taken from their homes in nature and trapped in laboratory cages, where experimenters intentionally expose them to stimuli that could cause stress, such as flashing lights and ringing bells. The fact that these experiments are designed to see how distressed fragile animals become is a testament to their unethical nature.”
Eve Massie, campaigns officer at OneKind, said “too many animals continue to suffer” in laboratories every year.
“When considering animal experimentation, many people will automatically think of the upsetting images of animals being exploited to test medicines and chemicals. However, even behavioural experiments can cause suffering to the animals involved, ” she added.
Read more of The Ferret’s coverage on animal welfare, here.
A spokesperson for LSU defended its experiments and said Dr Lattin’s research seeks to understand why some individuals, populations, and species are able to cope with stress while others are not.
“Many of the stress hormones are very similar among species from fish to birds to humans. Therefore, understanding how animals respond to stress can help us better understand human stress,” the spokesperson argued.
“Dr. Lattin’s work also helps us better understand birds in general, with the intention of saving entire bird species. Since she studies invasive bird species as subjects, there is no impact on the natural ecology.”
A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “When justified on legal and ethical grounds, research involving animals plays a vital role in developing new treatments for serious diseases of people and animals and provides crucial understanding of the body in health and disease, as well as contributing to improvements in animal welfare.”
Edinburgh University was previously condemned by PETA for subjecting animals to a “near drowning” test during its research into antidepressants, as reported by The Ferret in 2021.
Image Credit: iStock/AlecOwenEvans