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Experiments on Dogs Will Continue, VA Secretary Says

Robert Wilkie, head of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, defends controversial research practices that have been heavily criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Nov 12, 2018
Jef Akst

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Following news stories last week reporting that Veterans Affairs researchers continue to run invasive and controversial experiments on dogs, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie defended the practice.

“I love canines,” Wilkie tells The Washington Post. “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.” Specifically, he says studies using dogs have led to decades-old innovations such as the cardiac pacemaker and a treatment for deadly cardiac arrhythmias, the newspaper reports.

Wilkie says he will reauthorize experiments on canine subjects, including nine active projects involving 92 dogs that focus on spinal cord injuries. According to USA Today, some of the research involves removing parts of the dogs’ brains before euthanizing the animals; others involve placing electrodes on their spinal cords. 

Lawmakers have raised concerns about these practices, arguing that the invasive techniques are sometimes cruel and unnecessary. In March, President Donald Trump signed off on a spending bill that would limit such experiments, and recently proposed bipartisan-backed legislation aimed to end dog research at the VA all together. But, Representative Brian Mast (R-FL), who cosponsored the legislation, tells the Post: “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.” 

Regulations currently require that all VA research involving dogs must be approved by the secretary. Although former VA Secretary David Shulkin was vocally opposed to canine research, an agency spokesman tells USA Today that he approved the continuation of ongoing projects as late as his last day in the office. And now, Wilkie has said he will do the same. 

“[It’s] disconcerting that Secretary Wilkie was brought in to clean up the VA,” Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for White Coat Waste, which aims to end publicly funded animal research, tells the Post, “and yet he is doubling down on a program that has continued to fail veterans, taxpayers and dogs.”

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