Standing together at the December 5 Colorado State University board of governor's meeting, five protesters from PETA held signs that carried messages like “Animals are not ours to experiment on” and “CSU: Stop tormenting wild birds!" They might have been outnumbered by boardmembers, but their discontent with a CSU researcher who uses wild-caught crows, robins and sparrows was not lost on attendees.
Gregory Ebel heads up the experiments, conducted at the Arthropod-born and Infectious Disease Laboratory (AIDL) at the Fort Collins campus. Ebel has been capturing about ten to fifteen crows and about the same number of robins a year for the past ten years to investigate how certain viruses mutate in their bodies. According to the AIDL website, these birds are captured using nets and are only hunted on land whose owners have given Ebel permission.
Amanda Brody is a campaigner for PETA who has been protesting these experiments since May 2018. “Experimenters at CSU are taking birds from their natural habitat... they are injecting them with a fatal virus...and then they kill them,” Brody explains. She says activists find it reprehensible that the birds would be killed for the sake of science and see Ebel’s work as frivolous and unnecessary. “These are curiosity-driven experiments, meaning that Ebel’s purpose isn’t to find a cure or a vaccine or even to look into intervention strategies, but rather for the sake of an academic discussion."
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Ebel defends his work, which investigates the spread of mosquito-born viruses like West Nile, Zika and Chikungunya. “There are other labs that are working on drugs,” he explains.
These viruses used to be confined to small pockets of the globe but have spread over the past decade or so. Mosquito-borne illnesses now even threaten snowy Colorado, where, according to the CDC, there were 120 known cases of West Nile in humans in 2019, six of which resulted in death.
“What we are trying to understand is, as these viruses emerge, they move through these different ecologies,” Ebel says. “They encounter different kinds of hosts, and the viruses evolve very rapidly to maximize their transmission potential.”
Birds are amplifier hosts for these types of viruses, meaning they can both receive and pass on mosquito-borne illnesses. According to Ebel, studying how diseases like West Nile mutate in birds may have significant implications for the health of humans and other mammals.
“What we’re trying to do is to understand at a really fundamental level how that works and why it works the way that it does,” he says. “It’s basic science, but it’s the foundation of anything that we’re going to do ten years from now.”
Brody says crows are highly intelligent, social beings. “They value their freedom, their family, and their lives, and they don’t want to be caged and injected with a fatal virus just to be killed,” she argues.
According to PETA research associate Katherine Roe, animals held in captivity experience immense stress. Roe argues that the results of Ebel’s experiments may not be valid due to the changes in psychology and physiology that the captive birds may undergo.
According to the AIDL website, the captive birds are kept in a large room with other birds, given toys and unlimited food and water, and are allowed to fly and perch at will. Ebel explains that they are inoculated with West Nile via a needle, monitored for four days, then euthanized before symptoms of the virus arise to further reduce their suffering. All of this is done with strict oversight by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which approves and creates protocols for all experimental procedures that are administered to the birds. Furthermore, the birds are overseen by veterinarians and the CSU Lab Animal Resources group.
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The birds are captured with federal and state permits in place. However, in the early part of 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife opened an investigation into Ebel’s collection of wild crows at PETA’s behest. The investigation, which concluded April 22, found that the laboratory had illegally possessed five crows that had been captured without the proper permits. Ebel was fined $208, and his collection license was suspended. “Upon investigation, this case appears to be one of an administrative oversight, not an intentional violation,” said Area Wildlife Manager Ty Petersburg in a CPW official press release. “We are supportive of the academic research Colorado State is conducting with this human health and safety project.”
But Brody and others at PETA worry about the lapsed permits. “PETA is urging CSU President Joyce McConnell to put an end to these experiments,” says Brody.
During the public comment session at the board meeting, two individuals not associated with PETA took to the mic to express their opposition to Ebel’s experiments. “The only thing that comes from this, in my estimation, is evil,” said Paul Marokus of Denver. “I have been very disappointed in humans for their defilement of the natural world, and this is just a continuation of it.” Marokus asked Ebel to justify why his work should continue.
“We have to understand the ways that these viruses interact with different animals and different mosquitoes,” Ebel explains, “and there’s really no way to do that without actually working in the animals that are the most important to the virus transmission cycle.”