Guests at the 2021 Commencement ceremony were greeted by several protesters representing the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on Thursday, May 27. The protesters gathered outside Homewood Field at 6:30 p.m. in opposition to research conducted by Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor affiliated with the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.
Mysore’s lab performs procedures on barn owls to study human spatial selection and selective spatial attention.
PETA has been critical of Mysore’s experiments for several years, and in April the organization filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) claiming that the research is unconstitutional. In May, PETA addressed a letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), claiming that Mysore conducted his experiments without a proper permit despite the NIH’s requirement that grant recipients comply with state laws.
PETA is now calling on the USDA to revoke his current permit and on the NIH to recoup his grant money and deny future requests. University representatives maintained the stance that all proper permits were obtained for the possession and breeding of the owls.
With a background of soon-to-be graduates on Homewood Field, protesters lined West University parkway. The protests started at 6:30 p.m. and lasted an hour, at which point the commencement ceremony began. Some protesters carried signs with sentiments such as “Owls caged while grads cross stage” and “JHU kills owls in painful brain experiments.”
At the friends-and-family entrance, a mascot owl held the sign “Owls skulls cut open at JHU” as an actor wearing a lab coat poked and prodded its head. The protesters were seen distributing flyers and information about the Mysore lab to Class of 2021 graduates and their families.
Another aspect of the demonstration was a group of protesters holding screens and speakers, which played recordings of interviews with Mysore in which PETA argues Mysore admits the low translational capacity of his research. This recording is taken from a seminar Mysore spoke at, in which he stated that using head-fixed animals to study cognition may not be ideal.
“We might misinterpret what’s happening or misunderstand if we do this in head-fixed animals,“ Mysore said in the recording.
Lana Weidgenant, a graduating senior, voiced her support for PETA with a decorated cap that read “Free the JHU Owls.” In December, Weidgenant sent a Letter to the Editor condemning Mysore’s laboratory practices. Weidgenant is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit PETA filed in April, along with former Harry Potter actress Evanna Lynch and former state secretary of health Dr. Martin Wasserman.
PETA Vice President of International Laboratory Methods Shalin Gala released a statement detailing the event and the motive for the protest.
“As JHU graduates go out into the world, owls remain caged in Mysore’s laboratory, where they’ll endure painful brain mutilation and death,“ Gala wrote. “PETA calls on the university to end this despicable treatment of beautiful, intelligent owls immediately.”
Gala emphasized the support that their campaigns have received regarding the Mysore lab in an email to The News-Letter.
“Shreesh Mysore illegally cut into sensitive owls' skulls for ‘years’ by failing to get a mandatory permit, according to Maryland state officials, and he even admitted that the gruesome procedures he performs on the owls could cause him to ‘misinterpret’ his own data,” Gala wrote. “The public deserves the truth and PETA —supported by JHU students and alumni, and more than 339,000 of our supporters who have written to the school — are demanding that the administration shut down this disastrous taxpayer-funded owl lab.”
In an email to The News-Letter, Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president of external relations for the University, chose not to comment on the demonstration.
“Commencement was a joyous celebration of the accomplishments of the Class of 2021,” Lancaster wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We are so glad we were able to bring the undergraduates together, along with their friends and families, to mark this milestone in their lives.
This demonstration is the second year that PETA has protested the barn owl experiments at the Hopkins commencement ceremony. On last year’s virtual commencement day, PETA representatives circled the University with their cars, making stops at University President Ronald J. Daniels’ home and Mysore’s home in Towson.
Despite these protests, Mysore has yet to respond to allegations of ethics and permit violations.