The VA needs to stop unethical animal testing on dogs
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As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” The United States prides itself on not just its proper care and treatment of animals, as evidenced by the Animal Welfare Act, originally signed into law in 1966, but also on pampering their pets, especially dogs. In fact, the American Pet Products Association found that, in 2016, Americans spent over $62.75 billion on pet care and supplies, and that over 60.2 million U.S. households owned a dog.

So, when a Congressional delegation recently received information that U.S. taxpayers have been funding a narcoleptic dog colony of Dobermans for the sole purpose of being given methamphetamine and then euthanized so their brains can be dissected, the information was troubling.

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It is even more troubling when Congress learns that these Doberman dogs are deliberately being harmed so that a government agency can learn about human narcolepsy, despite the fact that the government’s own documents state “the underlying cause for narcolepsy in humans is different from that in dogs.”

 

It sounds like something from a third world country or a science fiction novel, rather than something funded by the U.S. government.

Sadly, this story comes not from a developing nation or a fictional story, but from Los Angeles, California. And, the government agency in question is none other than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Earlier this week, nine members of Congress from the greater Los Angeles area sent a letter to the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, requesting an investigation into the matter. Specifically, the members reviewed documents obtained by White Coat Waste, an organization whose mission is to save animals by stopping wasteful government spending on animal testing, that detailed the VA’s experiments.

The letter expressed frustration that VA described its experiments as an observational study, yet later classifies the experiments as Category D, meaning that they involve pain and distress to the animal. The Congressional delegation went on to refer to the VA’s actions as “alarming . . . misleading . . . lack[ing] accountability” and that “taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent.”

Unfortunately, and as is the case with many of the VA’s systemic issues, the unethical experimentation on dogs at the LA medical center is not an isolated incident. Additional documents released by White Coat Waste show that VA has also subjected dogs to inhumane testing at its medical centers in Richmond, VA; Cleveland, OH; and Milwaukee, WI.

Moreover, this is only the latest in a series of incidents detailing the VA’s lack of accountability and transparency. From the death of veterans awaiting access to VA care, theft of taxpayer funds by VA employees, retaliation against whistleblowers by supervisors, wrongful stockpiling of veterans' benefit applications to boost employee performance statistics, and system-gaming in pursuit of undeserved performance bonuses, the VA’s organizational behavior only seems to be getting worse.

While VA’s actions over the last few years towards the veterans it was designed to serve has been disturbing to say the least, it’s actions towards defenseless animals are a new low, even for the agency that has been described as a “calcified and soulless bureaucracy.”

Animal testing is a complicated issue, and it has been going on since the days of Socrates and Aristotle, often viewed as the fathers of modern ethics. Nonetheless, VA’s mission is, “to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise, ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.” America’s veterans are certainly not being served nor honored by VA providing misleading information on its animal testing procedures, including the Dobermans dogs being used at the Los Angeles VA Medical Center.

Dogs are often described as man’s best friend, but they are often even more than that for veterans with physical and emotional disabilities, such as PTSD, making the VA’s unethical animal testing procedures all the more egregious. According to research conducted on veterans with PTSD and service dogs, bonding with a dog elevates oxytocin, which in turn improves trust and mitigates other PTSD-related symptoms.

The concept, known as mission based trauma recovery, provides veterans with a sense of purpose and many report that working with a service dog is more beneficial in combating PTSD than other more traditional, pharmaceutical based therapies. It is shameful that the same agency tasked with providing disabled veterans with service dogs is also conducting the misleading experiments described above.

VA would be wise to learn from dogs, and Dobermans in particular, rather than to continue to conduct unethical testing on them at taxpayer expense. Dobermans are consistently rated one of the most loyal dog breeds, and are known for their hard work and intelligence. Dogs are transparent, and they take accountability seriously. The agency created to serve our nation’s veterans should do the same.

Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans, and is also the owner of two rescued Dobermans. She is the principal at Riley-Topping Consulting and has served in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and can be reached on Twitter @RileyTopping.


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