Medical experiments on dogs that include the severing of spinal cords will continue at the Veterans Administration despite strong opposition from a bipartisan group of Congressmen, several veterans organizations and animal rights advocates.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Friday at the National Press Club credited the research for the first liver transplant in the 1960s, as well as the VA’s invention of the cardiac pacemaker in the 1950s. He said the experiments were now necessary for research involving spinal cord injuries.
The crowd -- comprising VA employees, veterans and advocates -- applauded Friday when Wilkie said the research wouldn’t stop until it was proven to be unhelpful.
“I’m going to do everything that is ethical to make sure that our veterans come first,” Wilkie said. “I love canines, I was raised with them. I’ve seen them in my military life perform miracles. But we have an opportunity to change the lives of men and women who have been terribly hurt.”
The experiments, which are conducted at three VA locations, are invasive and sometimes fatal to the dogs and are cruel and unnecessary, said some lawmakers.
President Trump in March signed a spending bill that included language restricting such tests, and legislation has been proposed to end all canine research at VA.
The Washington Post quoted Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), an Army veteran who co-sponsored the legislation:
“Having sustained catastrophic injuries on the battlefield, which included the loss of both my legs, I am acutely aware of the vital role dogs play in helping troops recover from war’s physical and psychological tolls,” he said. “The VA has not executed what we wanted as intent, which is to bring this to an end in its entirety, so we will keep up the pressure."
The restrictions approved by Congress require any canine testing be “directly approved” by the secretary.
Last week, USA Today reported that the the VA is conducting research on dogs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Richmond, reporting that in Cleveland, the experiments involve severing dogs' spinal cords and testing their cough reflexes.
An animal rights group, the White Coat Waste Project, first drew attention to the testing in early 2017, sparking opposition in Congress and among some veterans' organizations.
The VA, with the backing of other veterans' and medical groups, pushed back against the mounting criticism, with then-secretary David Shulkin, a physician, calling the research critical “because of the distinct physical and biological characteristics humans and dogs share that other species do not.”