Rich­mond VA must stop an­i­mal test­ing

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP-ED - Christo­pher A Vir­ginia res­i­dent, Christo­pher Nei­weem is the founder of the Nei­weem Group, an Iraq War vet­eran, and po­lit­i­cal strategist. He has tes­ti­fied in both the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and U.S. Sen­ate as an ex­pert wit­ness on top­ics rang­ing from

For the past two years, the Rich­mond Veter­ans Af­fairs (VA) Med­i­cal Cen­ter has been un­der fire for be­ing one of the last VA hos­pi­tals still per­form­ing con­tro­ver­sial test­ing on dogs — test­ing that veter­ans like me don’t want or need. With new lead­er­ship forth­com­ing, the Rich­mond VA has an op­por­tu­nity to clean up this waste and abuse.

For decades, the Rich­mond VA has been us­ing veter­ans’ re­sources to pur­chase dogs, cut them apart and in­flict heart dam­age, and force them to run on tread­mills. As dis­cov­ered through in­ves­ti­ga­tions by tax­payer watch­dog group White Coat Waste Project, some of the dogs are sub­jected to ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain and dis­tress and the VA in­ten­tion­ally with­holds pain re­lief. Af­ter the tests, the dogs are killed and dis­sected. Some may re­call the “reck­less” Rich­mond VA doc­tor who killed dogs with sloppy surg­eries, was banned from an­i­mal test­ing, but was sub­se­quently awarded large salary bonuses and a raise for his “per­for­mance.” This is per­haps the best ex­am­ple to date of the VA’s in­com­pe­tence and ac­count­abil­ity fail­ures.

As a Vir­ginia res­i­dent, vet­eran, and veter­ans ad­vo­cate, I be­lieve the Rich­mond VA’s dis­graced dog-test­ing pro­gram should end, for three key rea­sons:

First, it doesn’t help veter­ans. As re­ported by USA To­day, “When asked to cite the most re­cent break­throughs cred­ited to the VA dog re­search, [VA] pointed to the in­ven­tion of an im­plantable car­diac pace­maker and pro­ce­dures that led to the first suc­cess­ful liver trans­plant. Those ex­per­i­ments date to the 1960s, ac­cord­ing to the VA’s web­site.” Nei­ther of these came out of Rich­mond, ei­ther. Last month, the Mil­i­tary Or­der of the Pur­ple Heart, a Vir­gini­abased group rep­re­sent­ing more than 46,000 com­bat­wounded veter­ans, called for an end to what they re­ferred to as the VA’s “widely op­posed and un­pro­duc­tive med­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on dogs.”

Sec­ond, it’s waste­ful. The head of the Rich­mond VA’s em­ploy­ees’ union said, “These ex­per­i­ments also come at a huge cost to our veter­ans, wast­ing lim­ited re­sources that pre­vent them from re­ceiv­ing the timely and qual­ity care that the VA, Congress and Amer­i­cans have promised them for their sac­ri­fice.” In the mean­time, veter­ans like me con­tinue to strug­gle to get doc­tor’s ap­point­ments and treat­ment for press­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal health is­sues. The VA is suf­fer­ing from a dan­ger­ous short­age of doc­tors due in part to low pay, yet the Rich­mond VA is wast­ing money needed to hire qual­i­fied health care providers to buy more pup­pies to kill and hire more an­i­mal test­ing staff to do it.

Third, veter­ans, tax­pay­ers, and law­mak­ers don’t want it. In a time of tense, un­prece­dented po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship, end­ing VA dog test­ing is one of the few is­sues both Democrats and Repub­li­cans agree on and are mo­ti­vated to tackle, both lo­cally and na­tion­ally.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has now twice signed bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion to cut fund­ing for the VA’s dog test­ing and im­ple­ment se­vere re­stric­tions on the prac­tice. Last ses­sion, the PUPPERS Act — in­tro­duced by for­mer Rich­mond-area Con­gress­man Dave Brat — at­tracted more than 100 Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic co-spon­sors. The bill is be­ing re-in­tro­duced in Congress soon, and Brat’s suc­ces­sor, Abi­gail Span­berger, should join this ef­fort to demon­strate her com­mit­ment to stand­ing up for veter­ans. Even im­me­di­atepast VA sec­re­tary, Dr. David Shulkin, tweeted last year, “As #SecVA and to this day-I re­main op­posed to­wards any new #dog re­search.”

Here in the com­mon­wealth, law­mak­ers en­acted bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion in 2018 cut­ting fund­ing for the Rich­mond VA’s most painful dog test­ing, which Vir­gini­ans were be­ing forced to pay for twice — with both fed­eral and state tax dol­lars. And Vir­ginia’s sec­re­tary of veter­ans and de­fense af­fairs, Car­los Hop­kins, a fel­low Army vet­eran, even told re­porters of Rich­mond’s dog tests, “That’s cer­tainly not some­thing that we’re sup­port­ing here in Vir­ginia.” And the Rich­mond So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals has con­demned ca­nine cru­elty at the lo­cal VA.

De­spite the over­whelm­ing sup­port for re­forms and progress that’s been made, in­clud­ing other VA fa­cil­i­ties shut­ting down their dog labs, the Rich­mond VA con­tin­ues to waste our money to hurt de­fense­less pup­pies.

Who­ever takes the helm of the Rich­mond VA should im­me­di­ately ter­mi­nate this provoca­tive and un­nec­es­sary pet project and re­fo­cus the fa­cil­ity’s mis­sion on ef­fec­tively serv­ing Vir­ginia’s veter­ans.

The Rich­mond VA con­tin­ues to waste our money to hurt de­fense­less pup­pies.

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