A Veterans Affairs medical center in Ohio appears to have downplayed and misrepresented the number of dogs killed in medical research experiments earlier this year by claiming they were all adopted to families when some were in fact killed, according to the facility's internal documents.
The Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, spent $5,800 to purchase "five mongrels for research" in March 2017, according to the federal database USASpending.gov.
When the Washington Free Beacon contacted the VA facility in late April about that purchase, a spokeswoman said the dogs had been inappropriate for the study and were given to local families as a result.
"The dogs most recently purchased did not fit the needs of the study, so the VA was reimbursed from the vendor and we adopted them out to local families," the spokeswoman said in an email.
She also noted that even though the facility keeps "detailed records of all or our research projects" the information the Free Beacon asked for "doesn't exist."
However, internal VA documents obtained by the taxpayer watchdog group White Coat Waste Project (WCW) via a Freedom of Information Act request appear to contradict several aspects of that statement.
Invoices and medical records from the facility show that on March 21, five dogs were delivered to the Cleveland VA. According to documents obtained by WCW, three of the dogs—which the VA said were adopted out—were killed on March 23rd, 27th and 30th, a month before the Free Beacon inquiry.
The experiments on the dogs stopped and they were "taken off protocol to be adopted out" on April 3rd, the same day that WCW submitted a FOIA request seeking records related to all the dogs currently assigned to research at the Cleveland VA. Records indicate that two dogs were marked as "adopted out" on April 28, the same day of the Free Beacon‘s inquiry.
WCW says it has closely tracked the Cleveland VA's purchase of their dogs, the timing of their subsequent deaths, and, in three recent cases this year, their adoptions. Via internal documents obtained through FOIA requests, the group has learned that the Cleveland facility purchases the dogs in groups, then conducts the experiments and records their deaths or adoptions within a day or a few days of the experiment.
The facility does not purchase the next group of dogs until all of the dogs in the previous group die or are adopted. The Free Beacon contacted the VA on April 28 and specifically asked about the dogs the facility purchased in March.
A spokeswoman for the Cleveland VA facility said a "misunderstanding" was responsible for the discrepancy in the information she originally provided to the Free Beacon.
"There was a misunderstanding on my part with regard to the specific group of dogs your outlet asked about," she said in an emailed statement. "At the time of the request two of the five most recently purchased dogs had been adopted out. The other three had been used in the research project and were no longer at the facility."
WCW said the dogs were no longer at the facility because they died during the experiments and said the explanation does not make sense because the facility only adopted out three dogs over the course of a year, not the five that the spokesperson originally claimed. Only one dog was adopted out of the 25 killed in experiments over the last year before the WCW began its campaign against the practice, and only two after the campaign began.
WCW called the practice a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars that most veterans and their families oppose.
"The records we've obtained through FOIA show that on an ongoing basis, the Cleveland VA is using our tax dollars to buy batches of hounds as young as nine-months-old, subject the puppies [and adults] to invasive and deadly experiments within days of their arrival, and then buy more dogs and repeat the process," said Justin Goodman, WCW's vice president.
"The VA has a difficult relationship with the truth," he added. "They only acknowledged the full extent of their experiments on dogs—and that some are done on dogs still considered puppies—after we found the evidence of it through FOIA requests. Now it appears that dogs they told reporters they ‘adopted out' were actually killed in experiments."
The Cleveland VA previously told the Free Beacon and other outlets that its dog-related research was "looking at ways to prevent serious and potentially fatal lung infections in individuals with spinal cord injuries."
Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin defended the agency's dog research program in an op-ed in USA Today last week, writing that they were needed to improve the lives of disabled veterans because of the distinct physical and biological characteristics humans and dogs share that others species do not.
Despite the VA and other supporters' defense of the practice, a new national survey found that a majority of veterans and their family members—56 percent—say they "support legislation to prohibit taxpayer funding of the most painful categories of dog experiments at the VA." Twenty percent said they opposed the measure, with the remaining 24 percent undecided.
The same poll, conducted in mid-September by PulsePoint Group, found that 71 percent of respondents said they "support efforts to ensure that, whenever possible, healthy dogs are adopted out from VA laboratories when they are no longer needed for research."
After reports in the Free Beacon and other outlets exposed the details of the experiments, several members of Congress stepped in and took action. The House in July unanimously passed language that would prohibit the VA from spending any taxpayer money on the most painful dog experiments in fiscal year 2018.
With the Senate expected to take up the measure that includes the prohibition this fall, a fight over the language is intensifying on Capitol Hill. The American Legion urged senators to strip the language from the spending bill in August.
In a letter to Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, (R., Miss.), the group said the research conducted through the experiments is "vital to advancing the medical well-being of our nation's veterans."
The letter stressed that the VA's practices are within recommended federal and ethical standards as established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 44 House members also are cosponsoring legislation called the Preventing Unkind and Painful Procedures and Experiments on Respected Species (PUPPERS) Act, to make the funding prohibition permanent.
Rep. Dan Donovan (R., N.Y.) told the Free Beacon he's "deeply disturbed by the evidence of abuse related to the VA's painful research on dogs."
The PUPPERS Act "will put a stop to the VA's most painful categories of experiments on dogs and wasteful spending associated with them," he said.