The Cruelty of Johns Hopkins Research

By Amelia Lipcsei

For years, researchers at Johns Hopkins, one of the most prestigious research institutions on the East Coast, have been conducting experiments on Barn Owls. Focusing on discovering ways to deconstruct neural circuits in the brain, Associate Professor Shreesh Mysore, leader of the controversial studies, claims that his research “has fundamental implications to the understanding of circuit substrates of psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia, and has the potential to inform the development of therapeutic strategies.” These experiments, however, come at a costly price: they put the health of Barn Owls at risk. 

To conduct sensory tests on the birds, researchers place electrodes into the owls’ brains. Unfortunately, although the tests do not hurt the birds, the invasive surgery procedure required to implant the electrodes does. Even worse, since neuroscience research requires the collection of the brain tissue of the subject, the owls have to die. Explains Eric Hutchinson, director of Research Animal Resources, “in order to collect that tissue, the animals undergo humane euthanasia prior to collection.” But is an involuntary death really “humane?” For the majority of their lives, the owls spend their time in captivity, facing cruel experiments and eventually having to endure early deaths. 

In 2018, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) began raising attention to the mistreatment the test animals faced. Appalled by the conditions of the owls, Shalin Gala, PETA’s vice president of international laboratory methods, explained that there are “Superior, more relevant research methods that 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.” Hoping to help stop the mistreatment of the birds, PETA repeatedly contested the permit given to Professor Shreesh Mysore, which allowed for the usage of owls in his experiments. 

PETA claims that Mysore possessed barn owls for experimentation without holding scientific collecting permits. Allegedly, for more than four years, the research team continued conducting experiments, even though their “scientific collecting permit expired on December 31, 2014” and “Mysore [only] applied for a second permit on December 14, 2018, which was awarded.” Finally, in May of 2022, PETA gained a small victory in their battle against Mysore; the DNR issued the professor a revised permit that prohibited him from killing the owls. However, just weeks later, on June 10, the DNR issued Johns Hopkins a “Permit to Possess Protected Species of Wild Birds,” which allowed Mysore to continue its owl research as before (including the euthanization of the birds).

Through all of the experiments, Johns Hopkins has continuously supported the actions of Mysore and his research team. The staunch backing the university has shown begs the question: is improving treatments for certain diagnoses truly worth the cruelty animals face in medical research?