It started in May with a web post by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Tell Yale University to Stop Tormenting Birds!” the headline read, followed by text accusing postdoc Christine Lattin of abusing wild house sparrows. Emails from PETA supporters began flooding Lattin’s inbox. “You should kill yourself, you sick bitch!” Messages on Facebook and Twitter followed. “I hope someone throws you into the fire,” read one.
By the end of August, PETA—based in Norfolk, Virginia—had organized three protests against Lattin, and she says she was getting 40 to 50 messages a day. “Every time I went to check my email or Twitter, my heart started racing.”
PETA and other animal rights groups have hounded researchers for decades. But Lattin is an unusual target. She’s a self-professed animal lover; her studies are far less invasive than the research PETA has traditionally gone after; and she’s a postdoc, much younger and less established than any scientist the group has singled out before.
Critics accuse PETA of trying to destroy Lattin’s career. “She’s at the most vulnerable point in the academic spectrum,” says Kevin Folta, a molecular biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was similarly targeted by activists after he reportedly failed to disclose funding from agriculture giant Monsanto. (He maintains he did nothing wrong.) PETA’s campaign, he says, “is a warning shot for anyone even thinking about doing animal research.”
PETA rejects that accusation. “We looked at Lattin because her experiments are so horrible,” says Kathy Guillermo, who runs the group’s campaign against the postdoc. “If she was a 60-year-old male with tenure, we’d being doing the exact same thing.”
Lattin’s interest in birds began when she worked at a raptor rehabilitation center and noticed that injured hawks and falcons responded differently to stress. The experience inspired her Ph.D. research at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She mixed small amounts of oil into the food of wild-caught house sparrows or “biopsy punched” their legs under anesthesia, and then measured their stress hormones. The work, she hoped, would reveal how birds respond to environmental threats—and aid conservation efforts.
After moving to Yale in 2014, Lattin pioneered the use of medical imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography and computerized tomography scans to study how stress affects hormones, neurotransmitters, and other indicators in living birds. She euthanizes the birds she works with, but hopes the imaging technology will ultimately allow her to avoid killing them. “Releasing them back into the wild is my ultimate goal,” she says.
So Lattin was caught off-guard when the hate mail started arriving. PETA, meanwhile, sent letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a Massachusetts district attorney, Lattin’s funders, and Yale, stating that her research was cruel and had no relevance to conservation or other species.
In mid-June, about 20 activists—mostly PETA employees—demonstrated outside a conference where Lattin was presenting her work. A month later, posters appeared across Yale’s campus urging the university to shut down her research, and more than a dozen PETA supporters marched in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. And in August, after PETA posted a video that received nearly a million views, protesters demonstrated again, this time outside Lattin’s research building. PETA organized another protest—outside Lattin’s home—slated for 13 September. It has shared her home address with its supporters.
“This has been one of the worst summers of my life,” Lattin says. Some of the threats were so specific that she was told to forward them to police. She hasn’t been sleeping or eating much, she says, and she worries about her husband and young child.
Critics say PETA’s actions are irresponsible. “If any criminal activity happened, it would be on their head,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, a London-based international organization that supports animal research.
Guillermo says she doesn’t agree with some of the vile language in the emails and tweets, but she supports their intent. She also insists that Yale, not Lattin, is PETA’s main target. Yale tells Science that “all of [Lattin’s] research activities were approved and there was no evidence of noncompliance or inappropriate care,” and that her “research represents a valuable contribution.”
Holder, like Folta, says Lattin might have been targeted because she’s early in her career, and vulnerable. Both worry that funders and universities will view the postdoc—who is now looking for a job—as radioactive. Her supporters are determined not to let that happen. Last week, Speaking of Research posted a blog that condemned PETA’s actions and asked scientists to stand up for her. As of 12 September, nearly 200 researchers had voiced their support.
Lattin is fighting back as well. She has changed the wording on her website to be more explicit about the value of her studies. And she’s thinking about adding FAQs and a section explaining her work in lay language. “Everyone who does animal research should have a page on their website that explains what they do and why they do it,” she says. “We need to get out in front of this stuff.”
PETA says it has no intention of backing off. “We’ll stop the moment Yale says ‘No more,’ and not 1 minute before that,” Guillermo says. But Lattin is equally defiant. “I am not going to stop,” she says. “PETA is not going to win.”
Still, Lattin laments the battle, noting that many of her goals align with PETA’s. “I’m trying to reduce the number of animals used in research, protect endangered species, and help animals in general,” she says. “I think we could find common ground.”