PETA Challenges Jesse Helms’ Amendment in Groundbreaking Lawsuit

20 Years On, the Bill Authored by the Late Senator Acts as a Death Sentence for Owls at JHU, Violating the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Attainder Clause

For Immediate Release:
April 13, 2021

Tasgola Bruner 202-483-7382

Raleigh, N.C.

PETA says it’s high time to overturn the amendment to the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) authored by the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and has filed a lawsuit to abolish it. In one of his last acts as a legislator, Helms, a notorious opponent of civil rights and animal protection, made sure birds, rats, and mice bred in laboratories were excluded from the minimal protections afforded to other species under the law.

On February 12, 2002, Helms explained his intention during a floor speech in which he urged his fellow senators to “deliver a richly deserved rebuke” to the “so-called ‘animal rights’ crowd” and declared that the animals he singled out are only “food for reptiles” who merit “extermination.” He elaborated, “I suspect Mrs. Helms would have a word or two for me if I forgot to phone the exterminator upon finding evidence that a mouse has taken up residence in our basement.”

PETA’s first-of-its-kind lawsuit has been filed on behalf of 30 owls—highly sensitive and intelligent birds who use a complex communication system, are faithful to one partner for life, and engage in cooperative social networks—being used in deadly brain experiments at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and names as defendants U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Kevin Shea. It alleges that the taxpayer-funded tests conducted in a laboratory at JHU result from the Helms Amendment, which prevents the USDA from protecting owls hatched in laboratories.

Since the barn owls used at JHU will ultimately be killed after their skulls have been cut open, the Helms Amendment acts as their death sentence. As PETA’s lawsuit points out, the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits congressionally imposed death sentences via the Bill of Attainder Clause.

“Because of an unconstitutional loophole drafted by a man who went out of his way to deny consideration to any sentient being he failed to relate to, laboratories in the U.S. can electrocute, paralyze, torture, starve, dehydrate, mutilate, neglect, and painfully kill birds and many other animals by the tens of millions,” says PETA Litigation Manager Asher Smith. “It’s past time to eradicate Sen. Helms’ unfortunate legacy and cover all animals under the federal Animal Welfare Act.”

Evanna Lynch (the award-winning animal welfare activist and actor who starred in the Harry Potter franchise) has joined PETA as “next friend” to the barn owls, as have Dr. Martin Wasserman (a former secretary of health for Maryland), and Lana Weidgenant (an animal rights and climate justice activist and a JHU senior).

Because of the Helms Amendment, student experimenters—whose trial and error during invasive procedures on the owls are chalked up to being part of the “learning process”—will operate on the birds without having to adhere to any of the protections guaranteed by the AWA. The experimenters will insert electrodes into the birds’ heads and restrain them so that they can’t move. The owls will then be bombarded with jarring sounds and images. When their brains have been damaged beyond use or when the experiments are over, they’ll be killed.

PETA and the plaintiffs are asking for the Helms Amendment to be abolished and for the federal government to require rigorous inspections and humane treatment of the owls in JHU’s laboratory—as well as of the tens of millions of other birds, mice, and additional unfairly exempted animals used in laboratories across the country.

PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to experiment on”—opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview, and all other forms of discrimination based on arbitrary biases. For more information, please visit

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