(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – An animal rights group is using new reports of animal welfare violations at a Department of Veterans Affairs research facility to strengthen its case against animal testing in government research.

The group, the White Coat Waste Project, was founded by a former Republican strategist and frames animal rights as a conservative issue by linking it to the waste of taxpayer dollars. Late last year, the group issued a report, “Spending to Death,” about dogs used in federal research, contending several agencies – including the VA – weren’t accurately reporting how they were using the dogs, the cost of the research and whether it was necessary.

Now, the group is using the VA as an example of wrongdoing.

White Coat Waste Project obtained reports through the Freedom of Information Act that show three instances of violations in the research program at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va.

An Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee determined researchers at the McGuire VA failed to comply with federal humane care regulations, leading to the deaths of three dogs during experiments in 2016, the reports show.

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees are – under the Animal Welfare Act – formed by research facilities to ensure that experiments remain in compliance with federal policies on humane care for laboratory animals. The VA notified the committee of incidents, and the committee determined there were violations of federal policies. In all instances, the committee ordered corrective action plans.

“VA animal research is strictly controlled and monitored with accountability mechanisms in place,” the VA said in a statement Thursday. “As part of that commitment, VA takes seriously any reports of not adhering to standards and will immediately review and correct processes if and when those issues arise.”

In one report, a committee member scolded a researcher at the McGuire VA for showing “reckless behavior” and a “lack of foresight” after lacerating a dog’s lung during heart surgery. In another incident, when two dogs died after cardiac surgeries, the committee warned that any more serious animal welfare violations “may result in full suspension or termination of your animal protocol at the VA.”

Besides alleging the reports were evidence of botched experiments – which the White Coat Waste Project claims is a waste of money -- the group also said they found misreporting at the agency.

Though one of the reports cited an incident of dog testing in March 2016, the McGuire VA’s fiscal 2016 submission to the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed contradictory information – that no dogs were used at the facility that year.

“There are pervasive transparency and accountability problems we’ve identified across the VA, and the disturbing evidence at Richmond exemplifies this broader problem,” said Justin Goodman, vice president of White Coat Waste Project.

Goodman aggregated the information into a letter to the VA inspector general on Tuesday and asked for an investigation into the VA’s animal testing program.

The Government Accountability Office has already undertaken a broader review into animal research at the VA and other federal agencies. Prompted by the “Spending to Death” report last year, a bipartisan group of 13 lawmakers wrote the GAO asking that it address “abuse, waste and accountability gaps” in animal testing programs.

They asked specifically for the government watchdog to find data on how much money each agency spent on animal testing, and to look into how the agencies inform Congress and the public about the costs and outcomes.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., was one of the lawmakers to sign the letter. Titus’ office confirmed the GAO agreed to a review.

Titus on Tuesday said the new reports obtained by White Coat Waste Project showed an “apparent pattern of dog abuse” and failures at the McGuire VA to “uphold standards of transparency and accountability.”

She and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., called on the VA to investigate the matter.

“These allegations are serious, forcing me to continue calling on the VA to thoroughly investigate them,” Titus said in a statement. “Taxpayers should not fund experiments that abuse animals or violate the law.”

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., questioned VA Inspector General Michael Missal about the group’s findings during a hearing Wednesday. Missal wasn’t sure whether he would initiate an investigation.

“I read the letter. We’re in the process of reviewing it, and we’ll determine whether or not it is something that makes sense for us to do,” he said.

Royce said in a statement he wanted to “save innocent animals from harm” and reduce expenses associated with animal testing – which gets to the center of White Coat Waste Project’s message.

“We were started by GOP political strategists who saw an opportunity to address animal testing as a taxpayer waste issue because billions are spent on experiments that harm animals and aren’t helpful to the American public,” Goodman said.

For its “Spending to Death” report, the White Coat Waste Project searched through annual reports about animal testing that federal agencies are required to file with the USDA. They found 1,183 dogs were reportedly used in government laboratories in 2015. Of those, 104 were used by VA researchers, the report states.

According to the VA, rats and mice are used for 99 percent of its experiments that require animals. It uses dogs in some instances, including to study lung infections in those with spinal cord injuries; to understand brain circuits that control breathing; to develop glucose sensors for diabetic patients; and to gain insights into narcolepsy.

In its statement Thursday, the VA touted its innovations, such as the cardiac pacemaker, saying the department’s research has “far-reaching and lasting impact.”

VA said its animal research program is under strict oversight by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, as well as its own office of research oversight. Its animal testing also must meet accreditation standards set by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Animal and Laboratory Animal Care International.

The statement went on to say the VA must comply “with the same regulations and standards that university programs, state, private, military or civilian organizations employ.”

In addition to the review by the Government Accountability Office -- and White Coat’s new effort to elicit an inspector general investigation into the VA -- one congressman has introduced legislation tightening controls on government animal testing.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif, introduced legislation in February requiring federal agencies to track and justify how many animals they’re using for scientific research, and to move toward alternative methods.

“It’s very difficult to obtain information about what these facilities are doing,” Goodman said. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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