Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, pictured at his swearing-in ceremony with President Trump in July, said Friday that the agency's controversial experiments on dogs could lead to important breakthroughs for disabled veterans. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie defended the agency’s ongoing experiments on dogs Friday and said he would continue to “reauthorize” them, eight months after Congress passed legislation limiting tests that are opposed by a bipartisan cast of lawmakers and several veterans’ groups.

Speaking at the National Press Club, Wilkie rejected calls to end research that he said led to the invention in the 1960s of the cardiac pacemaker and the discovery in the late 1990s of a treatment for deadly cardiac arrhythmias. These days, he said, some of the testing is focused on spinal cord injuries.

“I love canines,” Wilkie said. “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, then I’ll continue.”

Wilkie’s comments drew swift backlash from lawmakers who have criticized the experiments, which occur at three VA locations and are invasive and sometimes fatal to the dogs, as cruel and unnecessary.

President Trump in March signed a spending bill that included language restricting such tests, and legislation has been proposed that would end all canine research at VA.

“Having sustained catastrophic injuries on the battlefield, which included the loss of both my legs, I am acutely aware of the vital role dogs play in helping troops recover from war’s physical and psychological tolls,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), an Army veteran and co-sponsor of the legislation. “The VA has not executed what we wanted as intent, which is to bring this to an end in its entirety, so we will keep up the pressure."

The restrictions approved by Congress require any canine testing be “directly approved” by the secretary. Last week, USA Today reported that the agency has continued to conduct research on dogs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Richmond. In Cleveland, the experiments involve severing dogs' spinal cords and testing their cough reflexes, the newspaper reported.

An animal rights group, the White Coat Waste Project, first drew attention to the testing in early 2017, sparking opposition in Congress and among some veterans' organizations. The VA, with the backing of other veterans' and medical groups, pushed back against the mounting criticism, with then-secretary David Shulkin, a physician, calling the research critical “because of the distinct physical and biological characteristics humans and dogs share that other species do not.”

Which VA secretary approved the ongoing testing, however, is a point of contention. Before Trump fired him in March, Shulkin told an interviewer he was “not a strong believer” in the testing, and last week he tweeted that he “remain[s] opposed toward any new dog research.” But an agency spokesman said Friday that Shulkin had verbally approved the continuation of the research the day he was fired.

Regardless of who signed off on the research, Wilkie made clear Friday that his support remained firm. He said the agency uses 92 dogs in experiments, adding: “Every day, 2,000 dogs are euthanized in this country.”

Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for White Coat Waste, said it was “disconcerting that Secretary Wilkie was brought in to clean up the VA, and yet he is doubling down on a program that has continued to fail veterans, taxpayers and dogs.”

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