RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For the first time since our 8News investigation began, the Chief Veterinary Medical Officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs sat down with 8News to answer the tough questions about deadly dog experiments at McGuire VA Medical Center.
Dr. Michael Fallon flew in from Atlanta to talk with 8News Investigator Kerri O’Brien, who broke the story of the taxpayer funded research happening at the VA hospital in Richmond.
O’Brien asked Dr. Fallon right way, “why does the VA believe these experiments are so vital?”
“It is important for our veterans to receive the very best healthcare they can,” Dr. Fallon responded.
The chief veterinarian defended the use of dogs in medical research at the VA. He says sometimes there’s no other option.
“We can’t rely on computer simulations, we don’t know enough about the human body,” Dr. Fallon said.
O’Brien then asked, “The reoccurring comment we hear from the public is, ‘I just don’t want my tax dollars to be going towards killing dogs.’ How would you respond to that?”
“We don’t want to be having to use dogs in research, but there is no alternative,” Dr. Fallon said. “There are very specific research projects that require dogs.”
Projects like the work at McGuire, studying heart disease, Fallon explained.
Documents reviewed by 8News show dogs at McGuire undergo chest surgery, are implanted with pacemakers and then run on treadmills.
“The dogs enjoy being on the treadmill, they look forward to it,” Fallon said.
Yet the research plans indicate some dogs may collapse and suffer a heart attack. Fallon told 8News that’s a worst case scenario.
“The dogs could collapse, but they don’t want them to collapse,” he said. “As soon as they experience any discomfort, it is stopped.”
McGuire insiders recently told 8News the dogs are in pain, caged and nervous.
“They were saying they were seeing them in pain, distress,” said Jennifer Marshall, a Union Representative for McGuire employees.
“To see dogs that distraught, it’s hard,” McGuire employee Todd Woessmer added.
Dr. Fallon denies those allegations.
“That is simply not true,” he said. “I have seen the dogs myself the dogs were very healthy.”
The chief vet says the dogs get exercise daily, but he admits most are euthanized.
“These dogs are purposely bred for research and have never been pets,” Fallon explained.
For the first time since we started asking questions in March, 8News is learning the dog testing at McGuire has been ongoing for three years.
The chief vet says 39 canines have been experimented on. Researchers have been approved to use up to 118 dogs. Fallon says they’re all adult dogs.
“We are not using any puppies,” he told 8News.
However, O’Brien points out to him the project plans call for puppies as young at six months.
“I would have to look at that data again,” he replied.
The VA has stressed dog research has led to medical breakthroughs like the cardiac pacemaker, the first liver transplant and the nicotine patch. All inventions that are more than 30 years old.
So with Dr. Fallon in our 8News studios, O’Brien asked what has the work at McGuire over the past three years has led to.
“Anything current that has come out of these projects at McGuire?” inquired O’Brien.
“The nature of research is that you rarely see the fruits of the research immediately,” said Fallon.
But the chief vet did tell O’Brien dog research in L.A. recently led to the development of the implantable insulin pump.
“We can’t really tell which project is going to provide that clinical breakthrough, but if we don’t do the projects then we know we are not going to have a clinical breakthrough,” Fallon said.
O’Brien also asked, “What about critics who say, ‘I think the VA should get back to simply focusing on veterans and patient care and maybe not so much research?'”
“I would say research is absolutely part of modern healthcare and you can not separate the two,” Fallon said.
House lawmakers recently voted to cut funding for VA research involving dogs.
Dr. Fallon says that would be devastating for the veterans. He says the research would come to a halt.
You can watch our entire interview with Dr. Fallon below: