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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Helping Vets, Pets, and Primates

Congress took two steps in recent days on animal issues, as part of its larger bills related to the Department of Defense and military spending. 

I wrote back in July about legislation introduced by Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Representatives Ron Klein (D-Fla.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) with the goal of helping to place service dogs with disabled veterans. I’m pleased tell you that that the final National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 approved by both the House and Senate includes a provision backed by Franken, Isakson, Klein, and Whitfield, which instructs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to partner with nonprofit organizations to conduct “a three-year study to assess the benefits, feasibility, and advisability of using service dogs for the treatment or rehabilitation of veterans with physical or mental injuries or disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Pairing vets with pets is good for both the
soldier and canine.

A study doesn’t translate into immediate action, but it does provide a pathway for pushing a new issue forward in a military culture that is sometimes resistant to change. We expect a study to confirm what we’ve long known: that pairing vets with pets is good for both soldier and canine. For wounded warriors and disabled veterans, caring for a pet can help them reenter society and minimize stress and depression. Service dogs can also reduce the suicide rate among veterans, and provide other critical help—such as letting them know when it’s time to take medication, waking them from terrifying nightmares, or detecting changes in their breathing, perspiration, or scent to ward off panic attacks.

We hope that such programs will be designed to help rescued dogs as well as service members, and such inspiration can be found in the work of retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman and celebrity dog trainer Tamar Geller. Tamar’s program, Operation Heroes and Hounds, for example, is teaching wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan how to train shelter dogs to make the dogs more adoptable. Both canines and humans learn a new set of skills that will make a positive impact on their future.

Secondly, the Department of Defense Appropriations bill for 2010 included a provision by Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) directing the Army to produce a report on the use of live primates in training relating to chemical and biological agents. In one form of chemical casualty management training, anesthetized primates are given a chemical called physostigmine, which simulates exposure to a nerve gas by causing cholinergic intoxication. This intoxication may include symptoms such as salivation, difficulty swallowing, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, increased heart rate, muscle twitches, weakness, paralysis, seizures and coma.

Byrd’s provision—which was approved unanimously in the Senate version of the bill and still needs to be reconciled with the House version—seeks to examine the fiscal and animal care issues involved with keeping these long-lived creatures in research, and the costs of phasing out the use of primates and converting to human simulators or other alternatives in such training. Byrd, who is a lifelong champion of animal protection and the recipient last year of The HSUS’s Joseph Wood Krutch Medal, said that, “It is right and humane to call attention to our responsibility for the welfare of animals and I look forward to the findings in the DOD report.”

We are grateful to Senators Byrd, Franken, and Isakson, and Representatives Klein and Whitfield for advancing these important measures, which reflect the broader celebration of the human-animal bond and the need to confront practices such as invasive research on great apes. Thanks to these leaders, Congress continues to make progress toward improving our care for the men and women who serve our country, and improving our care of animals, too.


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