Whistleblower gives inside knowledge of dog experiments at McGuire VA Medical Center

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A whistleblower is sharing inside knowledge about taxpayer funded animal experiments involving dogs at McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond.

8News first broke the news of dog testing at McGuire back in March. But for the first time, 8News is getting a look at the dogs.

Todd Woessmer, a McGuire employee, took several of the images and described a dog he saw post-surgery in late May as ‘very distraught.’

“The one dog had recently had some sort of procedure done where you could see the incisions and the shaved part, and that dog was very distraught,” he explained.

The dogs shaved and stitched are locked in cages for most of the day, according to Woessner. He was so disturbed by what he has saw on his service calls to the research lab that he reached out to his union representative.

“To see dogs that distraught, it’s hard,” he said.

Todd Woessmer.

Woessner wasn’t the only one.

“Several of the employees had come to me with concerns about the animals conditions,” says Jennifer Marshall, President of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2145, who advised Woessner and others to take photos. “They were seeing them in pain, distress.”

Most of the images of the dogs and the operating rooms were captured in late May, but both Woessner and Marshall say the deadly experiments are still going on at McGuire. Woessner says seeing these dogs cut, probed and then confined to a small kennel or laboratory is heartbreaking.

“To see dogs that distraught, it’s hard.”  — Todd Woessmer

“You can tell they are like scared of you, very nervous, distraught, uncomfortable,” Woessner said.

When 8News asked if it seemed like they are in pain, Woessner replied, “Some of them, yes.”

Records show the McGuire research is centered around treating heart disease, particularly patients suffering from an irregular heartbeat or diabetes. The experiments currently involve 118 dogs and include surgeries to implant pacemakers, stress tests and induced heart attacks.

Most, if not all of the dogs, are set to die at the end of the project. In some cases, the hearts are harvested. 8News asks Woessner if he has ever seen anything like that.

“Yes, I have seen a bowl with water and a dog heart in it,” he replied.

We’re told since 8News started exposing the experiments, security around the lab has been tightened and the windows covered up.

“They have been all blackened out,” says Woessner.

“I have seen a bowl with water and a dog heart in it.” — Todd Woessmer

Woessner, a veteran himself who served in Iraq, has filed complaints with the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General and Special Counsel.

“I don’t think it’s the VA’s job to be doing this to dog’s,” he said. “I think they should be focusing on taking care of veterans.”

Marshall agrees. She tells 8News the research labs for the dog testing takes up part of two floors.

Jennifer Marshall.

“I have nurse practitioners that don’t have an office space,” she said. “I have social workers that are tripping over each over.”

It’s space and taxpayer dollars she believes could be put to better use.

 

“They could take the entire third floor, which is huge square footage, get research out of there and utilize that for patient care,” Marshall said. “The mission of our medical center is to provide care for veterans.”

In a statement, the VA said, “canine research is essential to developing crucial medical advancements to help veterans and non-veterans alike,” adding that their research has resulted in life-saving innovations like the cardiac pacemaker, the first liver transplant and the nicotine patch.

VA’s animal research program has saved lives in the past and will save lives in the future. It’s important for people to recognize that canine research is essential to developing crucial medical advancements to help Veterans and non-Veterans alike. VA’s research and innovations have resulted in products that are both life-changing and lifesaving, such as development of the cardiac pacemaker, the first liver transplant, the nicotine patch, the discovery of insulin, and most recently the first FDA approved artificial pancreas.

“It is important to note that almost 100 percent of the animals involved in VA research are mice or rats. Studies involving larger animals such as canines are rare exceptions; canines accounted for fewer than 0.05 percent of animals used in VA research in 2016.  Those protocols that do involve larger animals are undertaken only when studies of rodents cannot provide the information that is needed—for example, studies of medical devices that are sized for humans, studies of disorders that do not occur in rodents, or studies when the physiology of the dog is much more similar to human physiology (such as in heart studies).

“At VA, we have a duty to do everything in our power to develop new treatments to help restore some of what Veterans have lost on the battlefield. One of the most effective ways for VA to discover new treatments for diseases that affect Veterans and non-Veterans alike is the continuation of responsible animal research. VA’s animal research program sets the standard for accountability and transparency both inside and outside the government. We take seriously any reports of not adhering to our strict standards of responsible research, and we immediately review and correct processes when any issues arise. Risk is inherent in cutting-edge research programs of this type, but we welcome scrutiny of our program.” – Dr. Michael Fallon, Chief Veterinary Medical Officer, Department of Veterans Affairs

But these insiders call it cruel.

“I can’t see how anybody who see those dogs, the look in their eyes, and they don’t know what is going on, they’re innocent, God’s creatures,” Woessner added.

8News did reach out to McGuire, but officials declined to go on camera.

The Department of Veterans Affairs office in D.C. issued the following statement:

While there are ethical concerns associated with conducting animal research, they are far outweighed by ethical concerns associated with not doing animal research.  The broad consensus of medical and scientific experts in the United States and around the world that animal research is necessary. That’s why VA will continue conducting animal research like someone’s life depends on it – because it does.”

Earlier this month, Virginia Congressman Dave Brat called the experiments, “on the scale of torture.” He introduced the PUPPERS ACT, a bill that would limit the use of dog’s in animal testing.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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