People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has filed a lawsuit against federal government agencies in an attempt to abolish an amendment authored by former N.C. Republican Senator Jess Helms. Signed in 2002, the amendment negates protections under the Animal Welfare Act (1966) to birds, mice and rats — 95% of animals used in laboratory testing.
Almost two decades ago, Helms brought the amendment to the Senate floor and told his colleagues in a speech (scroll to Amendment no. 2822 to Amendment No. 2471 to read) that the animals targeted in the amendment were better treated in labs than elsewhere:
“A rodent could have it a lot worse than live out its lifespan in research facilities. I was surprised to learn from the Wall Street Journal that more than 10 times as many rodents are raised and sold as food for reptiles than are used by the medical research community. But nobody raises a point about that. I wonder if anyone in the Chamber has ever seen a hungry python eat a mouse. If you have, then you know it is not a pretty picture for the mouse. Isn’t it far better for the mouse to be fed and watered in a clean laboratory than to end up as a tiny bulge being digested in an enormous snake?”
The amendment was signed into law as part of the Farm Security Act (often called the “Farm Bill”) by then-President George W. Bush.
“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,” PETA litigation manager Asher Smith said in the press release.
In addition to abolishing the amendment, PETA wants the federal government to impose stricter inspections of laboratories nationwide. Currently, USDA does pre-licensing and random, unannounced compliance inspections. It also does inspections of facilities upon public complaints or tips that one is operating out of line of the AWA license and registration.
Recently, PETA found Johns Hopkins University’s Shreesh Mysore was conducting tests on barn owls without proper permits. The organization pulled JHU’s permit history, per the Freedom of Information Act, and found it was missing paperwork from 2015 to 2018. PETA sent a letter to Maryland Department of Natural Resources on Feb. 23, 2021 about their findings.
“If experimenters can’t even bother to file simple paperwork with the state, they shouldn’t be allowed to conduct complex brain surgeries on live animals,” the organization noted.
PETA said Mysore — who started at Johns Hopkins in 2013 as an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences — is harming barn owls by exposing them to extreme testing measures and then terminating them. Electrodes are inserted onto the owls’ heads to restrain movement and overwhelm their sensory system with “jarring sounds and images,” PETA described.
“When their brains have been damaged beyond use or when the experiments are over, they’ll be killed,” PETA explained in a press release.
Mysore wrote to Johns Hopkins’ The News-Letter in December 2020 that his work, which is funded by a National Eye Institute Grant, is fundamental to understanding the human brain and that experiments he conducts are credible within his field.
“Conclusions from studies in birds can significantly advance our understanding of the function of the analogous neural circuits across vertebrates, including humans, and as well, of their dysfunction in disorders,” he wrote to The News-Letter.
Yet, neuroscientist and PETA laboratory investigator Katherine Roe responded by questioning the viability of this research being applicable “to humans, who sense the environment in a different way,” according to the News-Letter.
Mysore essentially said key similarities exist between the two species.
In the lawsuit, filed Apr. 8, a Johns Hopkins senior and animal rights activist, Lana Weidgenant, is listed as a plaintiff, and is joined by former secretary of health in Maryland, Dr. Martin Wasserman, and actress Evanna Lynch (Harry Potter franchise). Lynch penned a letter to the Johns Hopkins president, taking issue with the treatment of the owls, including having them “live under fluorescent lights in an enclosure the size of a walk-in closet,” she wrote.
“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,” PETA added in a press release. “The U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits congressionally imposed death sentences via the Bill of Attainder Clause.”
PETA alleges JHU taxpayer-funded tests are a result from the Helms amendment, which “prevents the USDA from protecting owls hatched in laboratories.”
Defendants in the suit are recorded as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary Tom Vilsack and Animal and Plant Inspection service administrator Kevin Shea, who PETA explained are responsible for enforcing the AWA.
Plaintiffs and next friends of PETA are being represented by Bernard DiMuro and Jonathan Mook of DiMuroGinsberg PC, and litigators employed by the animal activist foundation.
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