PETA Slams Feds’ Argument in Owl Constitutional Lawsuit

For Immediate Release:
August 13, 2021

Tasgola Bruner 202-483-7382


Today, PETA Foundation counsel representing 30 barn owls used in deadly, taxpayer-funded brain experiments at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) filed a more than 13,000-word brief in a U.S. district court, in response to the federal government’s motion to dismiss the group’s historic lawsuit. PETA’s first-of-its-kind litigation, initially filed in April, is challenging the exclusion by the 2002 Helms Amendment of the barn owls imprisoned at JHU—along with other birds, mice, and rats born in laboratories—from the minimum protections of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) as an unconstitutional death sentence.

PETA’s groundbreaking lawsuit names U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Kevin Shea as defendants, as they ensure enforcement of the AWA. Because of the Helms Amendment, JHU experimenters—including students—are free to perform invasive tests on owls without having to adhere to any AWA-mandated protections that are afforded to other animals. When the birds’ brains are damaged beyond use, the owls are killed.

Therefore, the Helms Amendment acts as the owls’ death sentence—and the lawsuit points out that the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits congressionally imposed death sentences via the Bill of Attainder Clause. In addition to advocating for the abolition of the Helms Amendment, PETA Foundation counsel is urging 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 species—including birds, mice, and rats born in laboratories—who currently endure lethal experiments in labs around the country without AWA protections.

“Owls’ brains are being turned to mush in a Johns Hopkins laboratory with no federal oversight or protection because of an unconstitutional loophole to the federal Animal Welfare Act,” says PETA Director of Litigation Asher Smith. “The Constitution is clear that Congress can’t use legislation to inflict punishment on anyone, and since inanimate corporations enjoy this right, surely, it should also apply to living, breathing animals.”

Joining the lawsuit as next friend to the barn owls are a recent JHU graduate, a former Maryland secretary of health, and animal rights activist and actor Evanna Lynch.

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 or follow the group on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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