Johns Hopkins Defends Cruel Owl Experiments; PETA Debunks Its Lies

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6 min read

In response to a PETA supporter who wrote to Johns Hopkins University (JHU) with concerns about experimenter Shreesh Mysore’s cruel owl experiments, a JHU official responded with an e-mail so thoroughly packed with misinformation that we felt it merited careful attention.

Below, you’ll find JHU’s strident defense of Mysore’s owl dungeon of doom, broken down statement by statement. We sat down with PETA neuroscientist and former JHU postdoctoral researcher Dr. Katherine Roe along with PETA veterinarian and former Air Force officer Dr. Ingrid Taylor, both of whom provided scientific counterpoints to set the record straight about the school’s invasive and deadly brain experiments on these intelligent and sensitive birds.

Please use this as motivation to TAKE ACTION to help stop this barbaric junk science.

Johns Hopkins University owl torture
This owl is one of many imprisoned in Shreesh Mysore’s laboratory, where he cuts into their skulls and screws metal devices onto their heads in curiosity-driven experiments with no relevance to human health.

JHU: “Dr. Mysore’s research has the potential to provide new and critical insights into a number of important medical conditions, including ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia, so that scientists can develop better interventions and treatments to help people in need.”

Dr. Taylor: The key phrase here is “has the potential.” In other words, maybe, possibly, one day in the near or distant future, JHU hopes these experiments will lead to something meaningful for humans.

The evidence is stacked against it: Owls are not miniature humans and are poor surrogates. Unlike humans, owls have auditory and visual systems that evolved for target selection while flying in the dark. Bombarding these animals with artificial auditory and visual stimulation while they’re restrained and their heads are surgically bolted (an unnatural situation), as Mysore does, does nothing to further the understanding of human attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other medical conditions.

JHU: “The research thus far has already resulted in the discovery of a very important set of neurons that guide the process of focusing and attention-setting.”

Dr. Taylor: No.

Mysore may have successfully measured how certain neurons in captive-bred, restrained, and immobile barn owls respond to a barrage of computer images and sounds. But to imply that this is a scientific breakthrough is disingenuous because it is, in any practical sense, an entirely useless finding. Unlike humans’, barn owls’ sensory systems are adapted to let them seek out moving targets in the dark. How an owl hunts while flying in the dark has nothing to do with the way humans respond to their environment. But of course, Mysore isn’t even studying the owls’ natural behavior.

JHU: “This research is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) after a rigorous review process by experts, including veterinarians, to ensure the care and safety of the animals involved in the research. … The methods for each study are rigorously and repeatedly reviewed to ensure adherence to requirements of both the NIH and the organization that accredits our animal research program, AAALAC International.”

Dr. Roe: That “rigorous” review evidently does not include that the experiments are apparently illegal or that Mysore doubts the validity of his own results.

It appears that Mysore violated Maryland law from 2015 to 2018 when he failed to obtain a required permit to keep protected birds for experiments. Even Mysore himself, in a recently obtained audio recording, admits that his experiments might be scientifically worthless, a fact that also seems to have slipped past this supposedly unimpeachable rigor.

JHU: “Generating many of these fundamental concepts in human research participants is not possible with currently available technologies.”

Dr. Roe: Absolutely untrue.

There are a variety of neuroimaging techniques—including high-resolution anatomical neuroimaging (MRI), functional neuroimaging (fMRI), single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), positron emission tomography (PET), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—that are advancing understanding of the neural underpinnings of visual, spatial, and auditory attention; stimulus selection; and disordered attentional processes in humans, which are the same areas of investigation Mysore claims to study by tormenting owls.

Data from these non-animal research studies have paved the way for the current pharmaceutical, behavioral, and TMS-based treatments currently used to treat ADHD that will continue to pave the way for safe, effective treatments in the future—no owls needed.

JHU: “Studying owls, which have biologically perfected the brain mechanisms of information processing that underlie attention control, allows for groundbreaking discovery that significantly advances our knowledge of devastating illnesses in humans and how we can treat them.”

Dr. Taylor: Again, owls are not miniature humans. Any results deemed positive in owls would, at best, have to be extrapolated for humans, given the significant anatomical and physiological differences between species. There is no straight line between what works in an owl to what works in a human, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

Consider this: After a 2013 NIH report confirmed that “research involving chimpanzees has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health for infectious diseases,” experimentation on chimpanzees was effectively stopped. If experimentation on chimpanzees, who share close to 99% of their DNA with humans, was found ineffective, the chances are slim that JHU’s experiments on owls will yield anything useful for humans.

JHU: “We invest significant amounts of time, energy, and oversight to ensuring that our laboratory animals are well cared for and properly housed. Full-time specialist veterinarians provide round-the-clock care for our animals, including Dr. Mysore’s owls.”

Dr. Taylor: Federal records show otherwise.

U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators found numerous violations of federal law at JHU labs, where highly social primates were locked alone in barren cages and left to suffer from untreated health conditions. These include an incident in which a worker closed a cage door on a marmoset monkey, causing hemorrhaging and trauma to the neck, and another in which a young macaque was found dead after her head became entrapped in a ball that had a hole chewed through it, among numerous other instances of documented neglect. This culture of noncompliance at JHU doesn’t bode well for the owls locked in Mysore’s laboratory.

JHU: “The owls we use for research are not taken from the wild, and all surgeries are performed using appropriate anesthesia and pain management medications.”

Dr. Taylor: This is misleading.

Mysore provides neither dosages nor details of his anesthesia and pain-management plan in publicly available documents because grant applications do not require it, so he gets away with the vagueness that allows this statement. However, Mysore inflicts multiple distressing and unnatural procedures on owls in his laboratory. The owls endure multiple surgeries and are forced into restraint devices rendering them immobile, while being subjected to sounds and lights. For some experiments, owls are restrained for up to 12 hours while electrodes are inserted into their brains, causing significant damage to their brain tissue.

These owls suffer physically and psychologically from these procedures, regardless of pain management.

JHU: “The role of laboratory animals in research is essential to advancing medicine.”

Dr. Roe: No. No. No.

Animal experimentation is absolutely not essential. In fact, animal testing slows down progress. The rapid response to the COVID-19 virus proves this convincingly, as vaccines went quickly to human trials without slogging through years or even decades of pointless and deadly animal tests, resulting in the distribution of vaccines to millions worldwide in record time. The fact is that 90% of highly promising basic science, much of it involving animal testing, fails to produce human treatments within 20 years. NIH itself has noted that 95% of all new drugs that are shown to be safe and effective in animal tests fail in human trials because they don’t work or are found to be dangerous.

PETA scientists have a bold new plan—the Research Modernization Deal—to improve the value of research conducted in the U.S., and we’re calling on congressional leaders to embrace it and direct our federal health agencies to stop throwing tax money at experiments that aren’t working and instead support better methods.

Please TAKE ACTION and tell JHU to shut down the owl lab:

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