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For someone who professes to love animals, Christine Lattin appears to harm them with no compunction.

There are two main issues here: the irrelevance of her experiments, and the inhumane acts perpetrated on birds in the course of her studies. It is laudable to want to help birds, and she is correct in that we are all culpable in the environmental damages that are detrimental to wildlife and biodiversity. However, we must question the means by which these ends are achieved, on both a practical and ethical basis.

From a practical standpoint, there are significant anatomic and physiologic differences between human and birds. The adrenal glands of birds produce different steroid hormones than humans, with birds producing corticosterone as the main adrenal hormone while humans and other mammals produce cortisol. Unlike humans, most birds produce very low levels of aldosterone. Anatomically, the adrenal glands of birds lack the distinct outer cortex and inner medulla that is characteristic of humans.

Additionally, bird species themselves vary widely in their physiological responses. Sensitivity to stress hormones depends upon species, natural habitat and food source. Some birds show much lower sensitivities to stress hormones, while others may be highly reactive. Findings in one bird species do not necessarily correlate to another species, and these experiments would have to be validated over and over again in each species studied to achieve any relevance to wild bird populations. This means performing stressful, painful experiments in which the birds are all killed at the end.

In her oil feeding experiments, Lattin fed a uniform dose of crude oil until it achieved her desired effect, failing to take into account the wide variability of exposures that would take place in a natural setting. When Lattin compared the two groups of birds, in which only one of the groups was fed oil, both groups of birds experienced the same rate of weight loss, likely due to the stress of their captivity. These experiments cannot mimic realistic situations, and as such lack any real-world applicability to conservation problems.

Experimenters need to move away from the notion that inflicting pain and torture on an animal is justified simply because they might learn something from it. In some of Lattin’s experiments, birds held captive were so distressed they lost 11 percent of their body weight within just five days. In her wounding experiment, although she used anesthesia before inflicting the injury, she did not provide any pain relief, which means the birds woke up in pain from the wounds and suffered afterward. The birds in her PET experiments undergo prolonged captivity, repeated painful injections and stressful anesthetic episodes before they are killed.

The greatest impediment to scientific progress is not those who question the practical and ethical basis of experiments on animals, but rather the experimenters who remain entrenched in the notion that our answers will come from continued reliance on inhumane and unethical experimentation. Christine Lattin is a smart woman — it’s time she made this connection.

Dr. Ingrid Taylor is a veterinarian at PETA.

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