Are Some Sheep Gay?

Eight percent of rams, left to their own devices, seem to have a sexual preference for other rams.

But that's almost beside the point. It's been five years since Charles Roselli, a research scientist at Oregon Health and Science University, set out to understand the neuroscience behind the sexual orientation of sheep.

Then, last summer, the fur -- or wool, or whatever -- began to fly.

Internet Speed, and Martina Navratilova

"Information has been brought to light about ridiculous 'gay sheep' experiments that are being conducted at the school," said the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, on its Web site, PETA.org.

"You heard right," said PETA, "experimenter Charles Roselli is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to kill homosexual rams and cut open their brains in an attempt to find the hormone behind homosexual tendencies so that these tendencies can be changed."

The university says it got 20,000 protest letters. Blogs were filled with outrage. Martina Navratilova, the tennis star, joined in. She is openly gay and an animal lover.

"For the sake of the animals who will die unnecessarily in these experiments," said a letter from her, "and for the many gays and lesbians who stand to be deeply offended by the social implications of these tests, I ask that you please end these studies at once."

PETA says Roselli and his colleagues are performing cruel, unneeded experiments on sheep, using about $3 million in taxpayers' money.

"The fact remains that once you've figured out what makes gay sheep gay, it's am obvious implication that you can then turn off or change the hormone that can make then straight," said Shailn Gala, the research associate at PETA who has headed PETA's work on the issue. "He's not taking responsibility for that."

For the most part, major news outlets left the story alone. But then, on New Year's Eve, the Times of London ran a story proclaiming "Experiments that claim to 'cure' homosexual rams spark anger."

"This is not true," said Jim Newman, a press officer at the university who helped Roselli in an effort to answer the accusations. "This has never been suggested, and in fact the researchers have proactively explained for years that this is a basic science study aimed at gaining understanding of the biology of sexual attraction."

From the university's point of view, the sheep story is a morality tale about what happens when word spreads in today's 24/7 world. It moves more quickly than anyone intended, gets complicated when information is spread from one medium to another to another, and then the bloggers -- oh, the bloggers …

"Actually, the Web did a much better job of self-correcting," said Newman. "It's the traditional press that continued to spread a story that's fundamentally wrong."

"In their efforts to end all medical research involving animals, PETA made false claims about our studies," wrote Roselli in an e-mail. "They did so in an attempt to create anger in the gay and lesbian community, all based on untrue statements. The reality is that basic biological research like ours is directed at understanding important relationships between physiology and behavior, not finding cures."

Trying to Put Out a Fire

Newman and Roselli scoured the web, trying to answer blog posts that they said misrepresented Roselli's work. They got a sympathetic ear from such influential figures as Andrew Sullivan, who writes for Time Magazine's Web site. The New York Times noticed the traffic on the subject, calling the story "a textbook example of the distortion and vituperation that can result when science meets the global news cycle."

But Roselli's biggest champion is a man who will only be known as "emptypockets" -- a blogger who took up his cause.

"Whether killing an animal is worth it for an experiment is an important and always welcome discussion. What's not welcome is lies," wrote emptypockets on a blog called the Next Hurrah.

"I understand he's on the East Coast, and I believe he's a biologist, but I have no idea who he is," said Newman at the university press office.

Oh, by the way -- why do 8 percent of male sheep consistently try to mount other male sheep? Roselli said that's the original point. "This particular study," he said in a release in 2004, "strongly suggests that sexual preference is biologically determined in animals, and possibly in humans."

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