Dr. Christine Lattin is a Yale University researcher studying the effects of climate change, habitat destruction and invasive species encroachment on bird behavior. Her research has made her a rising star in the field of animal behavior and she is amazingly well published and highly cited for an scientist only recently past her doctoral degree. But now animal activists have targeted her with career-damaging personal harassment, and now they are poised to demonstrate in front of her home.
The research in question uses a variety of cutting-edge live imaging methods to understand neuroreceptor levels, hormone levels and other factors that are related to avian behavior. Dr. Lattin’s work studies house sparrows (an invasive species displacing native bluebirds) as subjects so there is no impact on natural ecology. By understanding the physiology that underlies bird stress, she gains a better picture of how such manifestations occur across vertebrates, potentially including humans. The birds are captured, anesthetized, treated with approved medical tracer compounds, imaged, and then released unharmed. The goal is to RFID-chip the birds so that the same birds may be re-examined later to monitor stress.
All procedures are heavily scrutinized and approved by Yale’s IACUC panel, which sets rigorous guidelines on animal research and animal care. All experiments are performed with strict ethical oversight.
But this work to understand and ultimately save birds has raised the ire of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and they have responded with personal intimidation and concerning harassment. PETA has posted flyers around the Yale campus stating Dr. Lattin’s name. They showed up at a scientific conference and stood meters away holding placards claiming that she was torturing animals. They have posted harassing videos in social media and provoked defamation online, along with her home address. Now they are planning to protest in front of her home on September 13.
The effects of PETA’s smear campaign are already apparent. One example comes with an image Lattin posted to Twitter earlier this summer featuring a poster showing her work:
— Christine Lattin (@c_lattin) June 16, 2017
The comments on the post are overwhelmingly from people accusing her of “torturing” and “killing” birds for the sake of her research, which is false:
Birds are intelligent, sentient animals. Not only is killing them incredibly cruel- it's also illegal: find alternatives.@NonhumanRights
— Animal Pen-Pals (@animalpenpals) July 19, 2017
Why is this any different than PETA’s normal tactics? It appears that they are targeting Dr. Lattin because she is an early-career postdoctoral researcher. She is sandwiched between a hard-fought doctoral degree and a rare academic job, leaving her especially vulnerable to PETA’s defamation. Whether the claims are true or not doesn’t matter; Google never forgets. Universities may see her as damaged goods, or potential legal or security baggage that none of them want to afford, no matter how important the research is.
Now this smear campaign has become personal. Dr. Lattin is also a mother, neighbor and friend. A personalized, invasive, demonstration in front of her home is designed to turn others against her and perhaps provoke locals into physical action.
Singling out an accomplished early-career researcher defines a new edge for PETA’s war on scientists. PETA is attempting to make her into a pariah, a social outcast for performing excellent scientific work. The goal is also to send a message to all early-career animal researchers—stop your work or we’ll target you too. This invokes what is called the Spiral of Silence, a state where scientists, science communicators, and the general public avoid certain research topics, even to the point of not discussing them, for fear of personal retribution.
Animals are to be respected and treated fairly. What PETA fails to understand is that species survival depends on the efforts of conservation-minded scientists like Dr. Lattin. Sometimes the methods might make the layperson a bit uncomfortable, yet they minimize any discomfort in one animal toward the pursuit of protecting the species. This is why we rely on oversight panels to ensure that all animal research conforms to the most rigorous guidelines.
What is the solution? The scientific community, science enthusiasts and anyone appalled by bullying of researchers needs to share this story. Follow Dr. Lattin and show your support in social media. Expose PETA’s tactics. Guide public sentiment by revealing how they have wrongly singled out and targeted a young researcher with a great career ahead of her.
Today there is plenty of lip service about standing up for science and scientists, and we now have a chance to put these words into action. Elevate awareness of this situation, the importance of Dr. Lattin’s work, and the relevance of her mission to help understand animal behavior to cope with a changing habitat.