Under fire from the White Coat Waste Project, Congress, taxpayers and more than a dozen national veterans’ groups, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced on Tuesday that the Office of Research and Development (ORD) of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) will continue to reduce its canine experiments by conducting a “rapid, in-depth internal review of existing canine research projects.”
“We understand that this is a sensitive issue,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement. “We look forward to a time when research involving canines is no longer necessary to advance the health of our Veterans and are taking action to hasten that day, but until then, the agency has a duty to do everything in its power to develop new treatments to preserve and restore our veterans’ health.”
The move comes after Shulkin, who previously defended the agency’s taxpayer-funded testing on dogs, appeared to change his stance on the matter, saying in a recent interview, “I am not a strong believer in the need for canine research.” It also follows an admission in The Washington Times by AMVETS’s Sherman Gillums, a U.S. Marine veteran, who revealed that he used to be “openly unwavering in [his] support for the VA’s canine research as a necessary evil that had no viable alternative,” but has now changed his mind.
“As a longtime dog owner, it wasn’t a position I came to easily. I could swallow the fact that a few animals might experience pain under controlled, humane circumstances, as long as it was necessary and effective for achieving the scientific breakthroughs that would mitigate suffering for veterans and others. However, I now offer that the words necessary and effective form the real crux of the debate on canine and other animal research,” he wrote. “VA-funded canine research has lost my confidence — and that of former supporter VA Secretary David Shulkin — due to its lack of significant innovations in decades. The research seems to bear more costs than benefits, particularly for those of us holding on to a hope that perpetually seems to linger just out of reach.”
While the VA claims to have fewer than 15 projects involving dogs currently underway, the agency was one of five found by White Coat Waste Project to have held a combined 1,183 dogs in 2016 and performed experiments involving significant pain and distress — including exposing the canines to anthrax, deliberately forcing them to suffer heart attacks, drilling into their skulls, infecting them with pneumonia by flies, and killing them and dissecting them — on a combined 294 dogs. Of the three agencies determined to have conducted the most cruel tests, the VA was among them. White Coat Waste Project’s report also estimated each dog cost American taxpayers as much as $13,795 and concluded that the government agencies had failed to be transparent about the nature of the experiments and their costs.
Last year, however, the VA instituted policies reducing canine research, one of which requires approval from both the Chief Research and Development Officer and the VA Secretary to initiate new projects involving dogs. As a result, no new such studies have been started, and two existing studies are now using alternatives to canine testing. The agency will now review whether the use of dogs in additional studies can be “phased out in advance of their original end dates. ”
“We’re grateful to Secretary Shulkin for listening to the overwhelming majority of veterans and other taxpayers who have said loud and clear that they are tired of paying for unproductive, outdated and cruel ‘maximum pain’ heart attack tests on puppies and other deadly dog experiments at the VA,” Justin Goodman, Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy at taxpayer watchdog group White Coat Waste Project, told Rare. “We’re cautiously optimistic that the VA will agree none of these wasteful projects deserve taxpayers’ support, as many veterans and leading veterans’ organizations have already determined and communicated to the VA and Congress.”