Baltimore Sun

Hopkins gets OK to test owls after permit battle

- By Ngan Ho

A Johns Hopkins University researcher can continue medical experiment­s on barn owls after a lengthy battle with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over animal cruelty and permit complaints.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources last month issued Hopkins a new permit to conduct what PETA calls “cruel” and “worthless” experiment­s on barn owls.

The animal rights group has campaigned for years to end the experiment­s, saying researcher­s cut into the owls’ skulls, implant electrodes in their brains and run sensory tests before killing the birds.

Hopkins has been staunch in its support for Associate Professor Shreesh Mysore’s research, which focuses on deconstruc­ting

neural circuits in the brain and understand­ing how they shape behavior.

The study could yield critical insight into medical conditions, including ADHD, autism and schizophre­nia so that scientists can develop better interventi­ons and treatments, the university says.

Experiment­ers place electrodes into the brains of barn owns. They then conduct sensory tests on the birds and record what the brain does as the owls react to their environmen­t. The owls are restrained during the tests.

While the implanted electrodes do not hurt or damage the birds, the owls are ultimately euthanized, said Eric Hutchinson, director of Research Animal Resources, which oversees animal care at JHU.

“Unfortunat­ely, for neuroscien­ce research, when you’re studying the brain, the tissue you need at the end of the experiment is the brain,” Hutchinson said. “There’s no way to collect that tissue in a way that would preserve the life of the animal. And so, in order to collect that tissue, the animals undergo humane euthanasia prior to collection.”

PETA raises concerns over animal cruelty in experiment­s

Mysore’s research appeared on PETA’s radar in 2018 when NPR published an article about his work with barn owls.

Initially, PETA tried to convince Hopkins that its experiment­s were brutal to the birds and that there were better methods.

“Looking at brain activity in barn owls with invasive procedures in the brain doesn’t give any insight into human attention deficit disorder because of the physiologi­cal difference­s across species,” Shalin Gala, PETA’s vice president of internatio­nal laboratory methods, told The Baltimore Sun in an October 2020 article. “Superior, more relevant research methods can be used to scan people’s brains during certain tasks and with consent. That’s a better way to spare the animals and get the data we need.”

When that didn’t work, PETA shifted its focus to a permit needed for using animals in scientific experiment­s.

The group repeatedly contacted the DNR, which issues the permits, and the National Institutes of Health, which funds JHU’s owl research, to contest the legality of Hopkins’ testing practices.

Last month, PETA declared victory, though prematurel­y, after the DNR issued Hopkins a revised permit with language that prohibited Mysore from killing the owls.

Maryland state Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer soon after sent letters to Hopkins, the DNR and the NIH, calling on them to ensure that the experiment­s end permanentl­y and to sanction the researcher.

The DNR had issued Hopkins a revised permit because PETA had filed complaints to the agency that Hopkins was killing the owls, which violated the conditions of the permit the university possessed.

The DNR issued a scientific collection permit to Mysore in 2014 that allows for the collection of wildlife for scientific or educationa­l purposes but becomes void with proof that the permittee killed any wildlife.

When Hopkins first applied for a permit in 2014, the DNR issued Mysore “the most applicable permit that they had,” Hutchinson said. The agency knew — and Hopkins was clear during the applicatio­n process — that Mysore was using captive birds, he said.

Mysore brought the barn owls from a research facility at Stanford University before setting up a breeding colony on campus. He should have never been issued that permit, Hutchinson said.

“When we were issued [the revised] permit, we of course, immediatel­y put a stop on any euthanasia so that we would be in compliance with that new permit,” Hutchinson said. “Meanwhile, [we] contacted DNR, and we were working with DNR to basically say the statute — that this permit is issued under — is for collection­s, and, in fact, there’s an existing statute that he should have been issued a permit under that covers possession.”

The DNR on June 10 issued the university a “Permit to Possess Protected Species of Wild Birds.” This enabled Mysore to continue its owl research as before, which includes euthanizin­g the birds.

“The university has applied for and received a permit to possess barn owls for scientific purposes, which is the appropriat­e permit for their captive-bred animals,” Gregg Bortz, the DNR’s media relations manager, said last month. He noted that the agency is not the oversight body for this research.

Despite the latest permit, PETAsays Hopkins is skirting the law with the complicity of the DNR.

“[I]t appears that MD DNR has now colluded with or bowed to pressure from JHU to try to find a work-around by issuing the school a separate new type of permit that allows for business as usual,” said Katherine Roe, neuroscien­tist for PETA, in a statement in a response to the latest permit. “It’s not clear that this permit is legal, and PETA will be reviewing the situation.”

Concerns over how animal experiment­ation is regulated

Gala, who oversees PETA’s campaign against Hopkins’ owl experiment­s, says there is a troubling lack of oversight in the regulation of animal experiment­ation.

For example, PETA learned through a public records request that Mysore conducted his experiment­s from 2015 to 2018 even though his old permit had lapsed. The permits must be renewed annually.

“When we raised this issue with NIH, NIH actually blamed DNR, saying that was their fault for not reminding him. But then DNR, when we raised it with them, [said] that they did send a reminder to him and that Mysore is the one who didn’t renew,” Gala said. “So everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else, and no one’s taking responsibi­lity.”

This back-and-forth between the agencies is indicative of a larger system breakdown, he said. Had PETA not repeatedly raised these concerns with each agency, it would presumably have been business as usual, he said.

Hopkins acknowledg­es that there was a lapse during those years. However, the stakeholde­rs, including Hopkins, the NIH and the DNR, reviewed how that happened and “concluded that it was essentiall­y a clerical error,” Hutchinson said.

Mysore’s work gets reviewed thoroughly every three years and annually on a cursory basis, Hutchinson said. The NIH also reviews Mysore’s research regularly to determine whether it’s worthy of funding, he added.

Emma Wojtowicz, public affairs specialist at NIH, said last month that the grant remains active. The agency has awarded more than $1.9 million to the project. The NIH is the final arbiter of Mysore’s research, Hutchinson said.

“Only 10% of NIH applicatio­ns are funded,” Hutchinson said. “And so the fact that he’s getting funded for this means that his peers and the NIH believe that what he’s doing is important.”

 ?? KARL MERTON FERRON/BALTIMORE SUN ?? A costume of an owl rests on the sidewalk while several activists for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protest at the Johns Hopkins University on Thursday.
KARL MERTON FERRON/BALTIMORE SUN A costume of an owl rests on the sidewalk while several activists for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protest at the Johns Hopkins University on Thursday.

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