(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — More veterans, military and medical organizations have come out against legislation limiting medical experiments on dogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Advocates and lawmakers attempting to shut down dog testing in the VA gained a new adversary earlier this month, when Paralyzed Veterans of America argued that stopping the research would limit future medical advancements. More than 80 organizations joined the opposition Friday.

Friends of VA Medical Care and Health Research, or FOVA, represents more than 83 groups. It lobbies for increased research at the VA and makes recommendations each year on funding levels for VA research and research facilities.

A measure to stop funding for VA research that causes pain to dogs passed the House floor on July 26 as part of a multi-agency funding bill. It was supported by Republicans and Democrats and drew no opponents on the House floor.

On Friday, FOVA’s seven-member executive committee sent a letter to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., and Rep. Nita Lowery, D-N.Y., urging them to act against the measure. The bill would stop funding on research that causes pain or distress to dogs, even when the pain could be relieved with anesthetics.

The group wrote the restriction would “impede scientific research and unnecessarily delay research advances for our nation’s veterans.”

One of the FOVA committee members is with Paralyzed Veterans of America and others represent Disabled American Veterans, the American Thoracic Society, American Psychological Association, Association of American Medical Colleges, National Association of Veterans’ Research and Education Foundations and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

White Coat Waste Project, which describes itself as a taxpayer watchdog group, has advocated since early this year for restrictions on dog testing at the VA. The measure also has support of the Humane Society of the United States. 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.

In March, White Coat Waste Project used reports of animal welfare violations at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., to strengthen its case against any animal testing in government research.

The Richmond VA notified its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee after three dogs died during experiments in 2016. Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees are oversight bodies that ensure experiments remain in compliance with federal policies on humane care for laboratory animals. Any facility using animals for federally funded research must have a committee.

The committee determined there were violations of federal policies, and in all instances, it ordered the VA to take corrective action.

In one instance, a committee member scolded a researcher at the Richmond VA for showing “reckless behavior” and a “lack of foresight” after lacerating a dog’s lung during heart surgery.

Sherman Gillums, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, argued the proposed restrictions on dog testing throughout the VA was an overreaction to those violations. But White Coat Waste Project described the experiments as “torture.”

“Torturing puppies in wasteful and ineffective VA experiments squanders taxpayer resources needed to provide basic care and services to veterans, and it’s troubling that organizations are lobbying for the VA to spend even more of Americans’ money on this waste and abuse,” White Coat Waste Project Vice President Justin Goodman wrote Monday in an email.

In June, White Coat Waste Project also brought to light another proposed VA experiment in Los Angeles that would have involved giving 18 narcoleptic Dobermans antidepressants or methamphetamine. Researchers would then kill the dogs and study how the drugs affect the body’s response to allergens.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and eight members of Congress from California questioned the experiment and the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center halted it.

In most instances of animal research, the VA uses mice or rats, Michael Fallon, the VA chief veterinary medical officer, said in a written statement. Dogs are used in some cases because of their physiological similarities to humans, FOVA wrote.

“Specifically, dog studies have advanced our understanding of immunodeficiency, narcolepsy, metabolic disease, cancer, autoimmune function, vision and epilepsy,” FOVA’s letter to lawmakers reads. “In short, animal models, including dogs, have helped advance science which has helped save human and animal lives.”

A VA spokesman contended the research is humane and when the VA finds problems in its animal testing, “we report them, fix them and hold those responsible accountable.”

The restrictions on dog testing that passed the House in July has yet to go to the Senate. Senators are expected to take up budget deliberations when they return next week from a monthlong recess.

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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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