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PETA asks NIH to pull funding for Johns Hopkins University over research into barn owls

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked the National Institutes of Health to pull funding for a Johns Hopkins University researcher the group says has conducted sensory experiments on owls without the required permits.

In a letter sent this week, PETA — which launched an advertising campaign against the institution in August regarding assistant professor Shreesh Mysore’s testing practices on barn owls — urged Johns Hopkins University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to rescind its approval of the experiments and implored the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health to pull its $1.5 million in funding.


“These experiments are not only cruel and worthless but also illegal,” alleged Shalin Gala, PETA’s ‎vice president of international laboratory methods. “You have to look at the fact that we live in a world without unlimited resources, and you want to prioritize research that is legal and ethical and will benefit people in the long run.”

Gala said PETA obtained, through a public records request, evidence that Mysore might not have had the necessary permits to “possess” animals for educational or scientific purposes from Jan. 1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2018. PETA said Hopkins should refund the NIH for all “invalid expenditures” in the period in which it appears that Mysore’s state permit allowing him to use barn owls in experiments lapsed.


PETA’s letter, which was sent to Hopkins and the National Eye Institute, also stems from Mysore’s remarks at a virtual event at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in September, where he acknowledged that there could be significant differences in examining “freely-behaving animals" and “head-fixed animals,” which could cause a researcher to “misinterpret what’s happening."

Mysore’s research focuses on deconstructing neural circuits in the brain and understanding how they shape behavior. He conducts sensory tests on restrained barn owls to provide insight into medical conditions including ADHD, autism and schizophrenia so that scientists can develop better interventions and treatments to help people in need.

PETA, however, describes his work differently. The organization said the experimenters brutalize the owls by cutting into their skulls, implanting electrodes in their brains and limiting their ability to react before ultimately killing them.

“Looking at brain activity in barn owls with invasive procedures in the brain doesn’t give any insight into human attention deficit disorder because of the inapplicable differences across species,” Gala said. “Superior, more relevant research methods can be used to scan people’s brains during certain tasks and with consent. That’s a better way to spare the animals and get the data we need.”

A Johns Hopkins spokesperson said in a statement that the institution strongly stands behind Mysore’s research, “which has already yielded the potential to provide critical new and critical insights into deficits found in a number of medical conditions that afflict tens of millions of humans.”

“It is disappointing that some would seek to deliberately mischaracterize the treatment of animals involved in research at Johns Hopkins through cherry-picked, inflammatory, and grossly incorrect allegations,” the spokesperson said. “The care of our research animals is incredibly important to us, and a responsibility that we take very seriously.”

Hopkins did not specifically address the allegation that Mysore’s permit had lapsed.

Hopkins employs full-time specialist veterinarians to provide care to the animals it uses for scientific and educational purposes, the spokesperson continued, and the university reviews each study to ensure adherence to the requirements of the NIH and the organization that accredits its animal research program, AAALAC International, the spokesperson added.

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“We fulfill all state and federal animal welfare requirements and guidelines, including the Animal Welfare Act Regulations administered by the USDA, the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and other applicable government and institutional guidelines and policies,” the spokesperson said.

PETA previously pressured Johns Hopkins to reduce and improve its handling of animals in research settings. The research institution, which leads much of the country’s ongoing research into the coronavirus and its spread, receives the most money from the NIH compared with all other organizations as of 2018.

A separate animal rights group previously filed a complaint against Johns Hopkins for what it described as botched surgeries on nine dogs that led to their paralysis and euthanasia. That group, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, also filed a complaint related to the accidental crushing death of a marmoset. The USDA inspected Hopkins and cited the lab for “unqualified personnel.”

The coronavirus pandemic’s sweep through the United States forced the closure of universities and laboratories responsible for overseeing their animal test subjects. At Johns Hopkins, scientists in March were instructed to designate animals in their labs as “mission critical,” and told that others “may be euthanized as space/resources require.”

That response prompted questions from PETA and other animal rights groups, which demanded more insight into the essential nature of the animals involved in the research.

“Why are these animals who — when the experiments were approved by the school’s oversight body were deemed so imperative for human health — are now so easily discarded?” said Alka Chandna, PETA’s vice president of laboratory investigations, in March.


The Virginia-based nonprofit also previously urged Baltimore crab fanatics via an ad campaign to consider swapping out their beloved crustacean for a vegan-friendly option. In another campaign, PETA referred to President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a “rich pest,” highlighting the need for humane rodent control after the Trump’s derogatory comments about the living conditions in Baltimore went viral.