Veterans come first, and if dogs have to be sacrificed in potentially fatal VA medical experiments to find cures for sick and disabled veterans, so be it, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday.
"The previous management authorized it. I will re-authorize it," Wilkie said of the research program that now involves a total of about 92 dogs at several VA facilities.
He did not give any figures on the number of dogs that may have been killed or harmed in the experiments. According to a USA Today report published this month, at least some of the experiments involve removing a portion of the dogs' brains before killing them by lethal injection.
"So I'm going to do everything that's ethical to make sure that our veterans come first. I love canines. I was raised with them. I've seen them in the military life perform miracles," Wilkie said in response to questions after an address at the National Press Club. "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, I will continue."
The VA's experiments on dogs are supported by veterans service organizations, including the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, Wilkie said. There have, however, been periodic attempts in Congress to stop the practice.
"My charge is to make life easier for those who have borne the battle and there is nothing more tragic to me in 2018, at this stage in the development of medical science, that we haven't been able to find that cure to address spinal cord injuries and paralysis, and early death from that," Wilkie said.
The research complies with all legal standards and "is conducted under strict supervision," Wilkie said.
Wilkie pointed out that the VA was not alone in using -- and killing -- dogs in the interest of medical research.
"Let me put this in perspective first," he said. "We have 92 canines. Every day, 2,000 dogs are euthanized in this country."
In addition, the VA has a long history of research that has produced medical breakthroughs, such as the development of the pacemaker and the first liver transplant, Wilkie said. He did not directly relate those breakthroughs, though, to experiments involving dogs.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.