PETA versus the postdoc: Animal rights group targets young researcher for first time

It started in May with a web post by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Tell Yale University to Stop Tormenting Birds!” the headline read, followed by text accusing postdoc Christine Lattin of wasteful experiments and animal abuse in her research on stress in wild house sparrows. Then the emails from PETA supporters began flooding Lattin’s inbox: “You should kill yourself, you sick bitch!” Then the messages on Facebook and Twitter: “What you’re doing is so sick and evil.” “I hope someone throws you into the fire …”

By the end of August, PETA—based in Norfolk, Virginia—had organized three protests against Lattin, and she says she was getting 40 to 50 messages a day. “Every time I went to check my email or Twitter, my heart started racing. I worried there might be another message. I worried about the safety of my family.”

In some ways, Lattin’s story is nothing new. PETA and other animal rights groups have hounded researchers for decades in hopes of shutting down animal experiments in the United States and elsewhere. But Lattin is an unusual target. She’s a self-professed animal lover with a background in bird rescue; her studies are far less invasive than the research PETA has traditionally gone after; and she’s only a postdoc, much younger and less established than any scientist the group has singled out before.

That has prompted critics to accuse PETA of trying to destroy Lattin’s career. “She’s at the most vulnerable point in the academic spectrum,” says Kevin Folta, a molecular biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. (Folta was targeted by activists opposed to genetically engineered crops after reports that he did not disclose funding from agriculture giant Monsanto; Folta say he did nothing wrong.) PETA’s campaign, he says, “is a warning shot for anyone even thinking about doing animal research.”

PETA rejects that accusation. “We looked at Lattin because her experiments are so horrible,” says Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president at the organization in charge of the Lattin campaign. “If she was a 60-year-old male with tenure, we’d being doing the exact same thing.”

A budding interest in birds

Lattin’s interest in birds began when she worked at a raptor rehabilitation center after college. People would drop off injured hawks and falcons, and she would try to nurse them back to health. She noticed that birds respond differently to stress, depending on the species: Red-tailed hawks seemed calmer after capture, for example, whereas Cooper’s hawks bounced around in their cages and barely ate.

The experience inspired Lattin’s Ph.D. research at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She mixed small amounts of oil into the food of wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus) or “biopsy punched” their legs under anesthesia, and then measured changes in their stress hormones. The work, she hoped, would reveal how the sparrows and other birds respond to threats like oil spills, climate change, and human encroachment—and aid conservation efforts.

Lattin came to Yale as a postdoc in 2014. There, she pioneered the use of medical imaging techniques—such as positron emission tomography and computed tomography scans—to study how stress affects hormones, neurotransmitters, and other aspects of physiology in living birds. For all her bird work, she has captured the animals in the wild—typically with cage traps or mesh nets near birdfeeders—and eventually euthanized them. But she hopes the imaging technology will ultimately allow her to study the sparrows without killing them—and even follow the same birds over time, minimizing the number of animals she has to use. “Releasing them back into the wild is my ultimate goal,” she says.

Hate mail and protests

So Lattin was caught off-guard when the hate mail started arriving. PETA, she soon learned, hadn’t just posted about her research on its website; it had filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a Massachusetts district attorney. The group also sent letters to Lattin’s funders and to Yale, urging them to stop supporting her research. In these complaints—and in additional posts to its members—PETA alleged that Lattin had killed about 250 birds and performed painful experiments without analgesics, and that her work had no relevance to conservation or other species. (House sparrows, Lattin’s primary research animals, are considered an invasive species in the United States. They are not protected under federal migratory bird laws, but are covered by some welfare laws.)

Then the protests began. In mid-June, about 20 activists—most PETA employees—demonstrated outside a conference building in Long Beach, California, where Lattin was presenting her work. Signs read: “Christine Lattin: Stop Torturing Birds!” A month later, posters appeared across Yale urging the university to shut down Lattin’s work, and more than a dozen PETA supporters held signs on a busy street corner in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. And in August, PETA posted a video on its Facebook page featuring ominous music and pictures of Lattin overlaid with text claiming that she lured birds from the wild to torture them. The video received nearly a million views, and protesters demonstrated again, this time outside Lattin’s research building. PETA is organizing another protest—outside Lattin’s home—on 13 September. It has shared her home address and a Google map of her location with its supporters.

“This has been one of the worst summers of my life,” Lattin says. “I care about these birds, and I’m really proud of my science. It makes me really upset to have it twisted and used against me.” Lattin says that some of the threats against her were so specific that she was told to forward them to police. She hasn’t been sleeping or eating much, she says, and she worries about the safety of her husband and young child.

In an age where social media is increasingly sparking real violence, critics say PETA’s actions are irresponsible. “If any criminal activity happened, it would be on their head,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, a London-based international organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs.

Guillermo says she doesn’t agree with some of the vile language that’s appeared in emails and Tweets, but she supports its intent, and says words don’t equal action. “If tweets could kill, everybody at PETA would be dead,” she says, alluding to negative messages the group receives. She also insists that Yale, not Lattin, is the main target of PETA’s campaign.

Yale tells Science that “all of [Lattin’s] research activities were approved and there was no evidence of noncompliance or inappropriate care,” and that her “research represents a valuable contribution to a growing body of knowledge.”

Career worries

Holder, like Folta, says Lattin might have been targeted because she’s early-career, and vulnerable. Both worry that, even if PETA ends its campaign, funders and universities will view Lattin—who is now looking for a job—as radioactive. “Google is permanent,” Folta says. Lattin is also pessimistic. “I fear that the negative attention is going to close doors for me,” she says.

Lattin’s supporters are determined not to let that happen. Folta had Lattin on his podcast a few weeks ago to share her side of the story, and yesterday Speaking of Research posted a blog that condemned PETA’s actions and asked scientists to stand up and support her. More than 80 researchers have voiced their support so far.

“It’s very important that this campaign does not have an impact on her career,” Holder says. “Yale and other researchers must rally around her to ensure that such campaigns don’t influence the future of research in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

Lattin is fighting back as well. She has changed the wording on her website to be more explicit about the research she does and why she does it. And she’s thinking about adding a FAQ section, and a section that would explain her work in lay language. Her experience, she says, has been a wake-up call. “Everyone who does animal research should have a page on their website that explains what they do and why they do it,” she says. “We need to get out in front of this stuff.”

For its part, PETA says it has no intention of ending its campaign. “We’ll stop the moment Yale says ‘No more,’ and not 1 minute before that,” Guillermo says. But Lattin is equally defiant. “I am not going to stop,” she says. “PETA is not going to win.”

Still, Lattin laments that there has to be a battle in the first place. She feels that many of her goals align with PETA’s. “I’m trying to reduce the number of animals used in research, protect endangered species, and help animals in general,” she says. “I think we could find common ground.”

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