Getting VA to stop experiments on animals

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Researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs perform abusive experiments on cats, after their ability to use dogs was defunded. That’s the charge coming from a group called the White Coat Waste Project. It’s working with Congress to get these experiments to stop, and it’s starting to have success. With more, White Coat Waste’s vice president for advocacy and public policy, Justin Goodman, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Justin, good to have you one.

Justin Goodman: Great to be on Tom. Thanks for having me again.

Tom Temin: Tell us what you discovered about what’s going on at Veterans Affairs.

Justin Goodman: So back in December of 2019, we worked with Congress to enact legislation telling the VA to phase out dog, cat and primate testing by 2025. And at that time, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the VA asking for more details about the current projects that they had going on. What we found was really shocking, about $8 million in abusive and wasteful experiments on cats happening at the VA hospitals in Cleveland, Louisville, and Los Angeles.

Tom Temin: And these are pretty awful experiments. In fact, I saw the links to the videos and I couldn’t stomach watching them actually, just the pictures were bad enough,

Justin Goodman: Unfortunately for the cats, but fortunately for taxpayers so they could see what they’re paying for. We got videos and photos of the experiments at the Cleveland VA in which the VA is purchasing healthy cats, performing invasive surgeries to plant devices on their colons and bladders, snapping their spinal cords. And then in some cases, they have fake feces forced up their anuses made of brand flour, and then they have these devices activated after which the cats are killed. They videotaped and photograph this abuse. These projects have been going on for about five years at the Cleveland VA and cost taxpayers about three and a half million dollars.

Tom Temin: And did the videos and pictures come from people inside that were trying to get this stopped, like sort of a whistle blower type of mechanism?

Justin Goodman: Actually, these videos were taken by the very experimenters doing the project to document what they were doing. I think they just didn’t predict that we would actually ask for them. And here we see exactly what they’re doing. We could read it in their own words and see it from the lens of their own camera.

Tom Temin: So in other words, was it a FOIA request or did you just ask for them and they sent them?

Justin Goodman: So in December, we submitted our Freedom of Information Act request, and after some back and forth, in May we finally got the documents.

Tom Temin: Got it. And what’s their justification for this kind of thing? I mean, what is misunderstood at this point in history, about constipation?

Justin Goodman: So they say they’re looking for people with spinal cord injuries, they’re looking for better ways to stimulate bladder control and colon control. But these are things that are well understood. And there are current experiments and research, clinical research going on now with human patients experiencing these problems, then that data is obviously going to be more relevant to the veteran population and the human population more broadly. Animal experiments are notoriously unreliable and even other federal agencies like the FDA and the NIH report that 90 to 95% of the experiments done on animals fail to translate to human. So this is an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars in addition to the cruelty involved.

Tom Temin: Yes. And you earlier, as we said in the lead, were able to get VA to cease dog experiments. So is this what they’re doing instead of dogs?

Justin Goodman: Some of this is instead of dogs, and some of this has been happening concurrently with the dog experiments. And, again, the dog experiments that are happening at the VA that we’ve been working to stop since 2016 and the House just voted to defund all of those projects last month. The VA repeatedly insisted that these were absolutely necessary. And then a report from the National Academy of Sciences that came out a couple months ago said actually they’re not. And that’s what we’ve been saying all along. That’s what veterans have been saying all along. We work with a lot of veterans, including the veterans group and vets, which represents several hundred thousand veterans across the country. This is just waste and abuse and it’s been happening for years because of institutional inertia. It’s been going on forever. People didn’t know it was happening and now they do and they want to stop.

Tom Temin: Tell us more about the interaction with Congress since you originally released the videos and the pictures and your report. This has moved along on at least in the House.

Justin Goodman: Yeah, we’re very grateful to have the support of a bipartisan coalition in Congress led by Congresswoman Dina Titus from Nevada, former member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Brian Mast, a combat wounded Army veteran who has been the lead on our efforts to end the dog testing at the VA, cat testing and other agencies actually, and now he’s taking the lead on this effort to end the cat testing at the VA. He knows better than anyone that the VA shouldn’t be wasting its money torturing cats when veterans can’t even get doctor’s appointments.

Tom Temin: And what about the Senate, any hope of some similar measure there?

Justin Goodman: We’ve had really outstanding help from the Senate on the on the dog campaign and the last few years. Senator Brian Shatz from Hawaii, the ranking member on the Veterans Affairs funding committee on the Senate side, has been a great leader on that issue and helped usher forward the legislation last year to phase out the dog cat and primate testing by 2025. And that phase out is great. It’s historic. We’re looking forward to it. But I think what we’ve uncovered now with the cats happening right now, at the VA, there’s an urgency to end this way before 2025.

Tom Temin: You mentioned primates is their monkey experiments that go on there too?

Justin Goodman: Yeah. So there are some monkey experiments happening at the VA facilities in Minnesota and San Diego. We’re actually still waiting for the documents we requested back in December, we still haven’t gotten them in hand from the VA. And the VA is one of these agencies that we’re constantly fighting with for access to documents that the public has a right to see. We have a number of lawsuits right now and I anticipate there’ll be a number more to force them to cough up these materials.

Tom Temin: And while we have you, what do we know about the wider federal government, say NIH and other medical related agencies and departments that also have experiments going on in a variety of formats, do they use animals still? I know at NIH, they do have primates that they have to keep fed and heated and air conditioned and so forth while most of the campus is vacant because of the pandemic.

Justin Goodman: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. The federal government spends about 20 billion, billion with a B, $20 billion a year on animal testing, and that’s the NIH, the FDA agencies like the VA, the CDC. And again, these experiments are incredibly wasteful, 90 to 95% of them fail to translate to humans. And this is just big business. There’s a lot of people getting paid, it’s an entrenched practice that fortunately members of Congress are finally holding the government to account for and asking them to do better cutting these wasteful projects and investing those resources in more efficient and effective research for veterans and other people.

Tom Temin: Justin Goodman is vice president for advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project. Thanks so much for joining me.

Justin Goodman: Thanks Tom.

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