PETA Files Groundbreaking Constitutional Lawsuit Against USDA Over Johns Hopkins University Owl Experiments

Law Allowing Deadly Brain Tests Violates Bill of Attainder Clause, per Lawsuit Filed on Owls’ Behalf by PETA, Evanna Lynch, Former Maryland Health Secretary, JHU Student

For Immediate Release:
April 8, 2021

Tasgola Bruner 202-483-7382


Today, PETA—as a “next friend” to 30 barn owls being used in deadly brain experiments at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)— filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Kevin Shea alleging that the taxpayer-funded tests, conducted in a laboratory at JHU, are unconstitutional and seeking protection from harm for the birds under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). PETA is joined as next friend to the barn owls by Evanna Lynch (the award-winning animal welfare activist and actor who starred in the Harry Potter franchise), Dr. Martin Wasserman (a former secretary of health for Maryland), and Lana Weidgenant (an animal rights and climate justice activist and a JHU senior).

PETA’s lawsuit takes aim at the 2002 Helms Amendment to the AWA, which was drafted by notorious civil rights and animal rights opponent Sen. Jesse Helms. It excludes birds, rats, and mice used in experiments from the same minimal protections afforded to other species under the AWA. Vilsack and Shea are named as defendants because they’re responsible for ensuring the enforcement of the AWA.

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. That the goal of the Helms Amendment is an unconstitutional death sentence was reinforced by Helms himself in a sarcastic floor speech in which he urged his fellow senators to “deliver a richly deserved rebuke” to the “so-called ‘animal rights’ crowd” and compared the animals he singled out to “food for reptiles” who merit “extermination.” 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—and of the tens of millions of other birds, mice, and additional unfairly exempted animals used in laboratories across the country.

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 also 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, they’ll be killed.

“Owls are being cruelly confined, tortured, and killed in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins with no federal oversight or protection because of an unconstitutional loophole to the federal Animal Welfare Act,” says PETA Litigation Manager Asher Smith. “PETA’s lawsuit seeks to prevent these living, breathing individuals from being denied the same basic rights afforded to others, including even inanimate corporations.”

The coalition of next friends—PETA, Lynch, Wasserman, and Weidgenant—have, among them, engaged in years of advocacy for these owls via methods including public demonstrations, regulatory complaints to state and federal agencies, publications, social media posts, and lobbying of public officials, JHU leadership, and the general public. The plaintiffs and next friends are represented by Bernard DiMuro and Jonathan Mook of DiMuroGinsberg PC as well as by litigators employed by the PETA Foundation.

PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to experiment on”—opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview. For more information, please visit

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