PETA to Bird Torturer: Here Are the Facts

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10 min read

Christine Lattin doesn’t like that PETA has exposed her cruel and pointless experiments on birds. We’re setting the record straight regarding her misleading comments.

Lattin claim: “[I]f my research wasn’t [sic] applicable to humans or any other species, it wouldn’t get approved, funded or published.” (Twitter, August 3, 2017)

PETA response: Applicability to humans or other species is not a condition for approval, funding, or publication of research. Indeed, the results of many of the most abusive experiments using animals are not relevant to humans and are driven only by curiosity. For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a series of infamous stress experiments in which infant monkeys were stuffed into tiny cages and then terrorized with loud noises. A horrific variation on this involved drugging mother monkeys, taping over their nipples, and then observing how their frightened babies frantically tried to wake them up. The experimenter responsible for this cruelty admitted publicly that his results were not relevant to human mental illness. Yet NIH saw fit to fund these experiments for more than 30 years with a total of more than $35 million.


Lattin claim: “Also: there is a TON of oversight on all animal research (mine included). It’s not illicit or secret.” (Twitter, August 3, 2017)

PETA response: Lots of paperwork does not equal protection for animals. The systems of oversight in laboratories are weighted in favor of the experimenters and often fail the animals they are designed to protect. The only law that offers any sort of protection for animals in laboratories deals primarily with housekeeping issues and excludes birds, mice, rats, reptiles, amphibians, and animals used in agricultural experiments. No experiment is illegal.

Experimenters can deliberately inflict psychological suffering and pain with the flimsiest of justifications and still receive approval by oversight committees. As a result, many experiments that are wasteful and irrelevant and cause significant suffering are approved. Just two of many recent examples include experiments on dogs with canine muscular dystrophy that have failed to lead to any effective treatments and others in which hamsters were given cocaine and forced to fight.

Like these, Lattin’s studies have not led to any useful real-world applications, hinge on the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering, and require the death of the birds used. Here’s a sampling of what birds have endured in her experiments with “oversight”:

  • Experimenters subjected birds to terrifying stressors, including rattling their cages, rolling them on a cart so that they could not perch, and physically restraining them, for 30 minutes four times per day at random intervals.[1]
  • One bird died during the administration of anesthesia prior to euthanasia.[2]
  • Twenty-six feathers at a time were plucked from birds without pain management.[3] Plucking large numbers of feathers can cause bleeding, skin irritation, discomfort, and difficulty with thermoregulation.
  • Capsules were surgically implanted under birds’ skin to administer drugs and then removed without pain medication.[4]
  • Birds were used for multiple experiments and in some cases kept in captivity for several months before being killed.[5], [6], [7]
  • Two birds died of “unknown causes” after two weeks of captivity.[8]
  • Birds lost 8 percent of their bodyweight and heart mass, and their muscle density decreased during the stress of captivity and repeated experimentation.[9]
  • Birds exhibited behavior that indicated stress and anxiety, such as beak wiping and feather ruffling.[10]
  • Wounds were inflicted on birds’ legs without pain medication.[11]
  • Some birds were so distressed that they lost 11 percent of their bodyweight within five days of capture.[12]


Lattin claim: “Because the hormone and neurotransmitter systems I study are very similar across vertebrates, my work also has important implications for human health.” (

PETA response: Lattin’s experiments lack applicability to humans. Her studies of chronic stress focus on the effects of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, or axis, but there are significant anatomical and physiological differences between human and birds. The HPA axis regulates the secretion and release of steroid hormones and plays an important role in stress responses for both humans and animals. Birds’ adrenal glands produce steroid hormones that are different from those produced by human adrenal glands—the main adrenal hormone produced in birds is corticosterone, while in humans and other mammals it is cortisol. Unlike humans, most birds produce very low levels of aldosterone,[13] and their adrenal glands lack the distinct outer cortex and inner medulla that is characteristic of human adrenal glands. Some male birds possess an appendix epididymis that extends into the adrenal gland, while others have adrenal tissue in the epididymis, a feature that does not exist in human males.[14] With such anatomical and functional differences, the physiological response to chronic stress in birds cannot be extrapolated with any reliability to other species, including humans.


Lattin claim: “[B]ecause they are an invasive species in North America that competes directly with native bird species for nest sites and other resources, there is no negative [conservation] impact, and potentially, even a mild beneficial impact, of removing them from the wild.”[15]

PETA response: Even if some groups designate certain species as “invasive,” this does not justify capturing, confining, and tormenting them. Lattin isn’t killing these birds in the interests of conservation—she’s holding them captive and deliberately inflicting frightening and painful procedures on them for weeks and sometimes months before finally ending their lives. This has nothing to do with conservation or protecting native species.


Lattin claim [regarding experiments in which she fed crude oil to sparrows]: “Doing this research in a lab environment allowed me to control a lot of things that might vary in the wild and make it hard to draw clear conclusions about cause and effect. What I found was that oil specifically impacted birds’ adrenal glands, preventing them from secreting normal amounts of stress hormones.” She cites this as being among “some important discoveries.” (

PETA response: In these experiments, Lattin fed a uniform dose of crude oil to birds until it achieved her desired effect and she was able to see measurable results, failing to take into account the wide variability in the level of exposure that would occur in a natural setting. When she compared two groups of birds, one of which was fed oil, both groups were under so much stress that they experienced the same rate of weight loss, and one bird died of undisclosed causes.[16] Additionally, there is little correlation between sparrows and aquatic birds, the species generally affected by oil spills. Studies of penguins and ducks, some of which were conducted decades ago, have produced widely varying results, including, respectively, an increase in corticosterone caused by oil exposure, a decrease, and no difference at all.[17], [18], [19] Not only are oil-feeding studies in sparrows irrelevant—as the sparrow is a nonaquatic species and therefore unlikely to be exposed to oil spills—they also fail to yield any results that can be extrapolated to other species of birds. They cannot mimic realistic situations and, as such, lack real-world applicability to conservation problems.


Lattin claim: “Understanding stress in wild animal populations is important because stressors like habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions now affect most, if not all, animal species. Knowing more about how these different kinds of stressors affect animals may allow us to save some species that might otherwise go extinct.” (

PETA response: It stretches credulity to equate the extreme stress of capture and the subsequent terror that Lattin deliberately inflicts on birds to the pressures brought on by, for example, climate change. In its 2015 “Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report,”[20] the National Audubon Society stated, “The persistence of many North American birds will depend on their ability to colonize climatically suitable areas outside of current ranges and management actions that target climate change adaptation.” So for instance, a species’ chance of surviving a warming world increases if nearby higher elevations offer a more suitable habitat and the birds are not blocked from moving into those areas. Nowhere does the report mention that the ability to withstand being rattled in a cage, rolled on a cart, and physically restrained is indicative of a bird’s resilience in the face of climate change.


Lattin claim: “My current research focuses on one type of stressor that has direct implications for the conservation of endangered and threatened species—bringing birds into captivity. The transition from the wild to captivity is a strong psychological stressor, even if birds have unlimited food and water and large clean cages.” (

PETA response: Here, Lattin claims that her experiments will somehow provide insight into the best way to mitigate the effects of captivity on endangered birds taken from their natural habitats.

In a 2017 paper,[21] she purports that in order to do so, it is important to know whether these effects are caused by the release of the hormone corticosterone or other physiological effects. To test this theory, she treated one group of birds with mitotane, a drug that limits the production of corticosterone by the adrenal glands.

Both the mitotane and non-mitotane groups experienced an increase in beak wiping—a sign of distress—the longer they were kept in captivity. While the mitotane-treated group experienced a smaller increase in this behavior, the effect was slight. Moreover, this group still lost the same amount of weight and demonstrated other stress-related types of behavior, such as increased feeding and feather ruffling, to the same degree as the control group.

Despite this underwhelming result, Lattin draws the sweeping conclusion that “experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes.” She seems to be making the absurd suggestion that captive birds should be subjected to the stress of an injection every other day in order to very slightly reduce one stress-related form of behavior.

When researchers or wildlife officials take the extreme step of capturing endangered birds to treat injuries, translocate them, or include them in breeding programs, they aim to lessen the stress experienced during capture and captivity. The birds might initially be hooded, kept in a quiet room, and provided with appropriate perching material. If Lattin truly wanted to design an experiment that aimed to explore what these unfortunate captives experience, she would have tried to reduce their stress instead of cruelly compounding it.


Lattin claim: A positron emission tomography (PET) scan, a type of imaging that looks at receptors in the brain, can be used to study wild birds without killing them. They can be scanned and released back into the wild.

PETA response: The reality is that, despite her repeated claims, Lattin has not released a single bird that she has captured back into the wild. Instead, she has killed them all once she was done experimenting on them. Birds in her PET experiments undergo prolonged captivity, and they are subjected to stressful injections and anesthesia. These normally social birds are held alone in cages, and the trauma of captivity is evident in their behavior—they lose weight and show signs of duress, such as feather ruffling and beak wiping.[22] The truth is that we don’t need brain scans to show that captivity stresses wild birds.

[1]Lattin, C.R., & Romero, L.M. (2014). Chronic stress alters concentrations of corticosterone receptors in a tissue-specific manner in wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Journal of Experimental Biology 217, 2601-2608.


[3]Lattin, C.R., Reed, J.M., DesRochers, D.W., & Romero, L.M. (2011). Elevated corticosterone in feathers correlates with corticosterone-induced decreased feather quality: A validation study. Journal of Avian Biology 42(3), 247-252.



[6]Lattin, C.R., Keniston, D.E., Reed, J.M., & Romero, L.M. (2015). Are receptor concentrations correlated across tissues within individuals? A case study examining glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptor binding. Endocrinology 156(4), 1354-1361.

[7]Lattin, C.R., & Romero, L.M. (2014). Chronic exposure to a low dose of ingested petroleum disrupts corticosterone receptor signalling in a tissue-specific manner in the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). Conservation Physiology 2(1), cou058.

[8]Lattin, C.R., Pechenenko, A.V., & Carson, R.E. (2017). Experimentally reducing corticosterone mitigates rapid captivity effects on behavior, but not body composition, in a wild bird. Hormones and Behavior 89, 121-129.



[11]Lattin, C.R., DuRant, S.E., & Romero, L.M. (2015). Wounding alters blood chemistry parameters and skin mineralocorticoid receptors in house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A 323(5), 322-330.

[12]Lattin, C.R., Bauer, C.M., de Bruijn, R., & Romero, L.M. (2012). Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis activity and the subsequent response to chronic stress differ depending upon life history stage. General and Comparative Endocrinology 178, 494-501.

[13]de Matos, R. (2008). Adrenal steroid metabolism in birds: anatomy, physiology, and clinical considerations. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice 11(1), 35-57.


[15]Lattin, C.R., & Romero, L.M. (2014). Chronic exposure to a low dose of ingested petroleum disrupts corticosterone receptor signalling in a tissue-specific manner in the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). Conservation Physiology 2(1), cou058.

[16]Lattin, C.R., & Romero, L.M. (2014). Evaluating the stress response as a bioindicator of sub-lethal effects of crude oil exposure in wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus). PLOS One 9(7), e102106.

[17]Harvey, S., Klandorf, H., & Phillips, J.G. (1981). Reproductive performance and endocrine responses to ingested petroleum in domestic ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). General and Comparative Endocrinology 45(3), 372-380.

[18]Fowler, G.S., Wingfield, J.C., & Boersma, P.D. (1995). Hormonal and reproductive effects of low levels of petroleum fouling in Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus). The Auk 112(2), 382-389.

[19]Leighton, F.A. (1993). The toxicity of petroleum oils to birds. Environmental Reviews 1(2), 92-103.

[20]National Audubon Society. (2015). Audubon’s birds and climate change report: A primer for practitioners. New York: National Audubon Society.

[21]Lattin, C.R., Pechenenko, A.V., & Carson, R.E. (2017). Experimentally reducing corticosterone mitigates rapid captivity effects on behavior, but not body composition, in a wild bird. Hormones and Behavior 89, 121-129.

[22]Lattin, C.R., Merullo, D.P., Riters, L.V., & Carson, R.E. (2019). In vivo imaging of D2 receptors and corticosteroids predict behavioural responses to captivity stress in a wild bird. Scientific Reports 9, 10407.

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