The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Should dogs be guinea pigs in government research? A bipartisan group says no.

Beagles and their owners marched to the California state Capitol in 2014 during a rally in support of a bill to help adopt certain dogs and cats at taxpayer-funded California research laboratories.  (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton)

In 1965, a Dalmatian named Pepper vanished from the Pennsylvania farm where she lived. Her owners later discovered that she had been stolen and sold to a hospital in the Bronx, and that she died there during an experimental surgery to test a pacemaker.

Public outrage over the theft of Pepper and other dogs eventually led to the passage in 1966 of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the treatment of animals used in research and exhibits. Although the law probably ended the use of stolen pets in lab research, it did not stop scientific testing on dogs in the United States.

The vast majority of lab animals are mice and rats. But records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate more than 61,000 dogs were used in experiments in fiscal 2015. Of those, 1,183 were used in tests at federal laboratories, according to report being released Tuesday by White Coat Waste Project, a group that opposes taxpayer-funded animal testing and wants government agencies to disclose more about animal research.

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The dogs in federal labs are the focus of the group’s report, which it says is the sum of all public information it could find on the topic. More than half of the dogs were used in tests at the National Institutes of Health, it found; the others were used by the Defense Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Veterans Affairs.

About one-quarter of the dogs were subjected to “significant pain and distress” that was in some way relieved, according to the records from the USDA, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act. Among the research at government labs were tests that involved inducing dogs to have heart attacks and drilling into dogs’ skulls, White Coat Waste found. But in general, the report said, government agencies “fail to disclose what they are doing, how much they are spending, the purpose or outcome, or what happens to the puppies and adult dogs unfortunate enough to be the subjects.”

White Coat Waste is presenting the report Tuesday at a briefing on Capitol Hill co-hosted by U.S. Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.). The goal is to use dogs as a “lightning rod” for drawing attention to animal tests paid for by the public, said Justin Goodman, the group’s vice president for advocacy and policy.

“This is a discussion about government transparency, and if taxpayers are going to be forced to fund this work, which they are, we should at least know what’s being done and how much it costs,” Goodman said.

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It’s no accident that the Congress members hosting the event are a bipartisan pair. White Coat Waste emphasizes that it is not a traditional animal advocacy organization, but one focused on what it says is government waste on testing — the kind of issue that could appeal to both fiscal conservatives and animal rights activists. Its founder, Anthony Bellotti, is a Republican strategist whose LinkedIn profile lists experience managing campaigns against Obamacare and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Goodman formerly worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“We oppose taxpayer funding of animal experimentation. That’s it,” Bellotti said. “We don’t take a position on cosmetics testing any more than we do on vegan nutrition.”

It’s a message that could resonate following the election of Donald Trump, who has made government waste a talking point. Although he’s said little about federally funded research, he told conservative radio host Michael Savage last year, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”

In 2014, a Pew survey found that 50 percent of Americans oppose the use of animals in scientific research, with Democrats and political liberals slightly more opposed than Republicans and conservatives.

“Finding effective ways to limit unnecessary and expensive animal tests is good for taxpayers and is good for our animals,” Calvert said in a statement sent to The Washington Post. “As a member of the Appropriations Committee that funds these agencies, I certainly welcome more analysis on what federal agencies are doing in terms of testing on dogs and other animals. I look forward to collaborating with a bipartisan group of my colleagues in Congress to address this problem.”

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Supporters of animal testing say it saves people’s lives. Animals’ biological similarity to humans makes them indispensable models for developing life-saving treatments, they say — for people and animals. Vaccines for polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis have relied on animal research, as have medical devices including pacemakers and life-support machines for premature babies, according to Speaking of Research, an advocacy organization. Researchers today use animals to study treatments for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses.

“Animal research is vital to the study of disease, and it is the primary reason why scientists have hope that they’ll be able to cure Ebola and other emerging infectious diseases,” Frankie L. Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 2015.

Critics say the findings of animal tests often are not applicable to humans, and they say technological advances are increasingly providing alternatives. Their cause gained traction when, after years of controversy, the NIH announced last year that it was ending invasive research on chimpanzees. That came two years after Director Francis S. Collins said “new scientific methods and technologies have rendered [chimpanzees’] use in research largely unnecessary.”

White Coat Waste was mostly unable to find information on the breeds of dogs used in federal labs, although it said most dogs used in research are beagles, citing NIH materials. In one NIH study the group found, researchers induced septic shock in beagles with pneumonia, sometimes causing hemorrhaging and lung problems, to compare transfusions of fresh and old blood.

The report also includes information from some contracts published on a government spending website. One 2015 NIH contract listed a cost of $13,795 for a “Beagle canine (male) 10-13 kgs, 2 years old.” A line item on a 2016 VA contract was $4,207 for “three male mongrels.”

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