The emails first began arriving in Christine Lattin’s inbox in May 2017. They haven’t stopped since, and they’ve grown in intensity.
Lattin, an assistant professor at LSU and the principal investigator of the Lattin Lab, first landed on the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals’ radar while she was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University studying stress hormones, or glucocorticoids, in house sparrows.
Glucocorticoids are found in all vertebrates, from fish to humans, so studying the hormone and how it’s used to combat stress can provide a better understanding of how animals and humans react to stress, Lattin said. Studying the hormone in an animal can sometimes require euthanization, so Lattin said she chose to work with sparrows because they’re an invasive species not native to North America, minimizing the negative impact of their removal on the environment.
“Understanding the physiology of stress is really essential,” Lattin said. “It’s a matter of life or death for wild animals. It determines whether a species is going to be able to survive or whether it’s going to go extinct. As humans, we have an extra responsibility to try to understand this question because we are constantly exposing wild animals to stressors that we are responsible for.”
But Lattin’s research caught the attention of PETA, who began a now yearslong campaign — which followed her to Baton Rouge when she accepted a position with LSU in 2018 — to discredit her work and compel her to stop the experiments.
The organization says Lattin’s work is cruel and essentially pointless, despite Lattin claiming otherwise and publicly defending the work over social media.
When she moved into her new home with her husband and their infant child, her neighbors received letters from PETA with her name and home address to try to make her feel “unwelcome and unsafe,” Lattin said.
PETA, which is against experimentation of any kind on animals, labeled Lattin the “Lady Bird-Tormentor of LSU” and published multiple news releases on her research. The nonprofit has over 6.5 million members and supporters, according to its website, and some of them have deluged Lattin’s inbox for years with death threats, she said.
PETA is now suing LSU over a public records request relating to Lattin’s research that the organization says was ignored, according to court documents. The organization is also running ads in Lafourche Parish against Lattin because that's where she does much of her trapping for research.
“For a decade, Christine Lattin has captured, terrified, tormented, and killed wild-caught birds in experiments that don’t apply to humans or even other bird species,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a news release. “PETA is rallying the kind people of Lafourche Parish to reject this indefensible cruelty to animals.”
While Lattin said she couldn’t comment on the ongoing litigation, she accused PETA of lying about her work in order to create outrage that will prompt its supporters to donate to the group.
“A big misconception out there is that this work is unregulated,” Lattin said. “It’s incredibly, highly regulated, which I think is as it should be. Animal researchers, including myself, care deeply about minimizing any kind of suffering and distress in research animals, and we only use animals in research when there’s no other alternative.”
Some of Lattin’s research at Yale even pioneered ways to study the brains of the birds using imaging techniques that don’t require euthanization, she said.
Most of Lattin’s doesn’t require euthanization, including her lab’s most recent paper from over the summer that studied how sparrows communicate to teach each other about various threats in their environment.
Lattin is now studying the effects of climate change on birds’ nesting patterns, why certain individuals react more negatively to stress than others and how stress can affect a bird’s immune response. She said she hasn’t been dissuaded from her work by PETA’s campaign against her.
“I have a really supportive university, a really wonderful lab of students that work with me who are excellent and do really good work and the work itself is really rewarding and valuable. I have no control over PETA and what they do, I only have control over myself. The work that we’re doing right now, I’m really excited about, and I think the projects are really valuable.”