The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing bipartisan pushback against its decision to continue controversial, and at times fatal, experiments on dogs under a program the agency says advances medical research that potentially helps wounded veterans.
House lawmakers have vowed to double down on efforts to end VA dog testing after Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday he would reauthorize the research. President Trump in March signed into law a spending bill that included a provision restricting the experiments, and Congress has introduced legislation that would altogether end the invasive testing on canines.
"In today's world, medical research has come a long way and new technologies and practices have improved how we discover the best ways to treat patients," a spokesperson for Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.) told the Washington Free Beacon on Monday. "What the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing is cruel and unacceptable and needs to be stopped. Fortunately, there is legislation in Congress to do just that."
Rep. Dina Titus (D., Nev.), a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, said she was "disappointed to see that Wilkie plans to continue" dog testing despite opposition from Congress and several veterans' advocates.
The limitations Congress passed eight months ago require that any VA tests on dogs be "directly approved" by the secretary. The move followed revelations last year of botched heart surgeries on dogs at the VA facility in Richmond, Va. Techniques to test cardiac function included inserting pacemakers and catheters into the hearts of dogs, then inducing abnormal heart rates and running them on treadmills before euthanizing them.
Earlier this month, USA Today reported that the agency has continued to conduct invasive research on dogs, with nine active experiments in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Richmond. Tests involve severing dogs' spinal cords to measure cough reflexes and removing sections of their brains to test neurons that control breathing. The dogs are often killed after experimentation.
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R., Fla.) called the VA a "canine house of horrors" and demanded a permanent ban on the "gruesome" experiments. Rep. Brian Mast (R. Fla.), an Army veteran and co-sponsor of the bipartisan PUPPERS Act that would end such experimentation, called the revelations "alarming."
"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," said Mast. "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 until these invasive, painful and deadly experiments on dogs stop completely."
It's unclear which VA secretary initially approved the ongoing testing. An agency spokesman told the Free Beacon on Friday that former VA Secretary David Shulkin approved continuation of the research in March during an in-person meeting on the day he was fired. Shulkin denies that he ever authorized the program to continue.
Regardless, Wilkie reiterated his support for the research on Friday. He said VA canine research led to the development of the cardiac pacemaker in the 1950s and the use of ablation to treat cardiac arrhythmias in the late 1990s.
"I love canines," Wilkie said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "But we have an opportunity to change the lives of men and women who have been terribly hurt, and until somebody tells me that that research does not help in that outcome, then I'll continue."
Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for White Coat Waste, told the Free Beacon on Friday that it's "perplexing Sec. Wilke was brought in to clean up the VA, but he's going to continue failing vets, taxpayers, and dogs by continuing a program that's opposed by most vets."
The agency contends the research is limited in scope and carried out only when there is no other way to collect the needed information. Wilkie said the VA uses 92 dogs in experiments while thousands of dogs are euthanized across the country each day.
Several major veterans' advocacy groups that previously expressed support for the program, including Paralyzed Veterans of America, have since shifted their position.
"We no longer oppose efforts to end VA fatal medical research on dogs," spokeswoman Liz Deakin told USA Today earlier this month.
The group's former executive director, a retired Marine who sustained a cervical spine injury in a car accident 16 years ago, has also withdrawn his support. Sherman Gillums, who now works as the chief strategy officer at American Veterans, said he initially viewed the research as "vital" to seriously disabled veterans, but upon further review he found the program hasn't yielded major medical advances in decades.
"My effort here is not to make this an ideological issue, my purpose here is to ensure we’re spending our tax dollars properly and that our vets aren’t being sold false hope," Gillums told the Free Beacon. "I'm not seeing the benefits of killing more canines."
The House Veterans Affairs Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE 9:50 a.m.: This piece originally said PVA was in favor of the testing, but the group recently said it no longer opposes efforts to end fatal medical research on dogs.