'Full Measure': Animal research

(Sinclair Broadcast Group)

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - One-hundred-fifty research beagles were rescued in India by an animal rights group (view footage in the video player above). The dogs were being used to test cosmetics. Some had reportedly never walked outside their cages. Now, they’re free to move about for the first time in their lives.

It’s very much legal to use dogs and other animals in approved experiments in the U.S. For obvious reasons, it’s also the subject of much debate among animal rights activists like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

PETA video: "A National Institutes of Health laboratory in Maryland has confined hundreds of monkeys and bred dozens of babies of each year to be predisposed to mental illness."

And on the other side, deeply committed research scientists represented in this video by Americans for Medical Progress:

Dr. John Young, veterinarian: "What we do here is very responsible, very humane and very likely to lead to improved health care for human and non-human animals."

Dr. Oswald Steward, director, Reeve-Irvine Research Center (Foundation for Biomedical Research video): "We can’t say whether something new is safe or whether it works unless it’s gone through a proper set of tests. These tests actually have to begin at the level of animals, so it’s very important to do that."

But you might be surprised to learn how many dogs are being used as test animals – more than 61,000 in fiscal year 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which, by law, oversees animal welfare.

Some of those canine experiments are conducted by our own federal government – at taxpayer expense – in ways that aren’t transparent and are hard for outsiders to evaluate.

Anthony Bellotti: "We’re not talking about cosmetic companies, we’re not talking about pharmaceutical companies, we’re not talking about charities. We’re talking about Beltway abuse, government agencies experimenting on these dogs."

Bellotti heads the White Coat Waste Project, a group that wants to stop taxpayer-funded animal experiments.

Sharyl Attkisson: "Can you summarize what you learned about what’s going on here?"

Bellotti: "What we learned is that there are over 1,100 dogs - beagles, other hounds - that are currently being experimented on in government agencies."

Those agencies include the National Institutes of Health, CDC, FDA, the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Bellotti says the VA falsely declared it wasn’t experimenting on dogs. For example, the VA research facility in Richmond, Virginia reported using no dogs or other animals in fiscal year 2016.

Bellotti: "What we found in our analysis of their paperwork was that in 2016 the [VA] said they had not, were not experimenting on any dogs. Didn’t turn out to be the case. What we found was that they were indeed experimenting on these dogs. We’re talking about experiments involving high levels of pain and distress unrelieved with anesthesia or pain relief."

Through a deep dive into government documents, Bellotti’s group learned of six projects at the Richmond VA center using dogs.

Bellotti: "We’re talking about experiments in which dogs are tethered to treadmills, forced to run for periods of time to stress their hearts. They suffer spontaneous heart attacks after devices are implanted surgically, they run, they have heart attacks, they kill them. They dissect their hearts and they look at basic, curiosity-driven research."

Other federal experiments in 2016 included an NIH study that subjected beagles to “controlled bleeding” to induce shock and see if transfusions with fresh blood are better than old blood. More dogs died if they got old blood. Versions of this experiment were also done in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2015.

Bellotti also learned of a VA study that force-fed dogs and made them repeatedly vomit to study the muscles.

Attkisson: "Is it necessary these days to do animal testing, at least in government agencies?"

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla.: "I can't imagine it. I'm not sure how the VA got involved in it. It puts a lot of animals at risk, and I guess some of them are actually dying as a result of it, that's my understanding, so we're going to clearly look into it in, in the very near future."

Buchanan co-chairs Congress’ bipartisan Caucus for Animal Protection. He signed this week’s letter asking the VA inspector general to investigate “whether animals are being harmed unnecessarily and whether taxpayer dollars are being misused.”

Attkisson: "What about for people who say animal research is maybe a distasteful but a critical component of studies that has to be done to make life better for people?"

Buchanan: "I don't agree with that. I don't think we need to put our animals at risk. And I think most people would side with me on that point."

The VA declined our interview request so we couldn’t ask about its disclosures, experiments or the results. In a statement, the agency said its animal research is carefully monitored, “subject to a strict system of review and oversight,” and complies with federal and state animal welfare laws.

At a hearing about the VA’s budget earlier this month, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., questioned a VA representative about a letter the White Coat Waste Project had sent about the animal research.

Bishop: "Do you intend to undertake that investigation and do you have any idea how long that will take?"

VA Rep: "I got the letter last night, about 5 o’clock last night. I read the letter, I responded to the gentleman who sent it saying we will review it and we’re in the process of reviewing it and we’ll determine whether or not it’s something that makes sense for us to do."

Defenders of animal research emphasize how crucial it’s been to saving human lives, whether creating vaccines or treatments for diabetes and heart disease.

Young (Americans for Medical Progress video): "We have mice that we’re using to unlock the mysteries of Down syndrome. We have pigs with coronary arterial stents used to treat cardiovascular disease and we have dogs that have telemetry devices implanted in them to measure intra-atrial and ventricular pressure to treat heart failure patients."

But Bellotti argues a big problem is a lack of transparency; there’s no easy way for the public to even know the outcome of the VA dog research funded with tax dollars.

Bellotti: "Their own internal policies say they need to be posting the results of these studies. They’re not doing that. How are we, as taxpayers and medical professionals, doctors who treat veterans, how are we supposed to determine if we should be investing more in VA-style heart attack experiments on dogs if they’re not even abiding by their own rules and posting the results of these experiments? We can’t make that judgment call."

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