The increasingly irrelevant fight to protect dogs from medical experimentation.

The increasingly irrelevant fight to protect dogs from medical experimentation.

The increasingly irrelevant fight to protect dogs from medical experimentation.

The stolen dog that changed American science.
June 4 2009 6:36 AM

Brown Dogs and Red Herrings

Or, why we no longer experiment much on dogs.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

On a balmy June morning in 2007, a pair of Pennsylvania congressmen gathered their colleagues in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building to show them a video. The lawmakers watched excerpts from a documentary that had aired on HBO the previous winter, about an unscrupulous dog dealer in Arkansas who was selling animals to laboratories. About 40 years after Pepper's story prompted the first federal dog-napping law, the wheels were in motion on another. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., introduced the film: "It's hard to believe that someone would steal people's pets and treat them this way."

Despite the film, the Pet Safety and Protection Act failed to pass in 2007, just as it has on a nearly annual basis for the last 13 years. Should it ever succeed, the law would ban the sale of any dogs and cats for research by "Class B" dealers—those who collect or buy their animals rather than breeding them themselves. (If such a designation had existed in 1965, it would have applied to the three men—Jack Clark, Russ Hutton, and Bill Miller—who handled Pepper during her 10-day journey to the dog lab.) That's not an unreasonable goal—as the HBO special showed, the Class B dealers are almost certainly engaging in some shady practices—but it hardly seems worth the sustained efforts of the nation's top animal welfare advocates. To put things in perspective, only about a dozen of these dealers remain in business, and they sold fewer than 3,000 dogs to research labs in 2008. Those dogs, stolen or not, represent just afew thousandths of 1 percent of all the animals used by American scientists.

It's not too long ago that dogs and cats mattered a great deal to the practice of biomedical research. Today they're barely relevant—a tiny, shrinking line item on an enormous ledger of death. Something like 100 million animals are killed in experiments every year in the United States, yet groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute continue to treat a handful of pet thefts as a keystone issue. How did a broad struggle for the ethical treatment of lab animals turn into a border skirmish over missing pets?


Dogs were already a favorite of scientists when live-animal experimentation became widespread in the mid-19th century. Bred for docility over many thousands of years, the dog evolved as an ideal animal for the lab, simple to feed and house and poke and slice. It was also easy enough to imagine man's best friend as a stand-in (and a physiological model) for people: What's true for Pepper must be true for us; her heart must beat like mine.

Potential test subjects were everywhere in the early days of vivisection. A fascinating paper by historian Bert Hansen describes how American cities of the Gilded Age were beset with stray and wild dogs. In 1885, the New York Herald guessed there were some 300,000 in Manhattan and another 150,000 in neighboring Brooklyn. The scourge invited open brutality: Police officers were empowered to shoot dogs in the midst of rabies panics, and captured strays were crammed into cages and drowned in the East River.  

From the start, though, the use of dogs for violent laboratory experiments disturbed a bourgeois sensibility that associated them—or at least the purebreds—with family and the comforts of domestic life. (Many years later, Julia Lakavage would tell reporters that Pepper and her other dogs were "like family members … children that don't grow up.") That notion extended to the very upper reaches of society: Queen Victoria of England—whose menagerie of pets included Skye terriers Islay, Cairnach, and Dandie Dinmot; King Charles spaniel Dash; greyhound Nero; mastiff Hector; and many more—was well-known to be suspicious of the new science of animal experimentation. In 1875, the year before the passage of Britain's Cruelty to Animals Act, Victoria asked Joseph Lister to speak out against vivisection: "The Queen has been dreadfully shocked at the details of some of these practices," her secretary wrote, "and is most anxious to put a stop to them."

Reconstruction of William Bayliss’s physiology lecture.
The court watches a reconstruction of William Bayliss's physiology lecture during the 1903 trial over the "Brown Dog Affair."

By the first decade of the 20th century, the plight of research dogs had become the principal cause for animal activists, who singled them out on account of their vulnerable nature—and the ease with which they could be used to elicit public support. In February 1903, a pair of Swedish animal lovers slipped into a medical demonstration at University College London and watched physiologist William Bayliss cut open the neck of a brown dog. In their published account of the episode, they claimed that the animal had suffered under improper anesthesia. Riots erupted after a monument was erected to the anonymous brown dog. (Tensions over the "brown dog affair" have been revived in England several times since.)

Scientists responded to the furor over experimental dogs with anger and derision. Historian Susan Lederer cites a 1910 screed by a New York physician who accused the anti-vivisectionists of suffering from a kind of "zoophilic psychosis": They "interest themselves not so much in experiments upon fishes, insects, pigeons, rats, mice, snakes, nor in cruelties to men, cattle, chickens, and sheep," he wrote. "Their interests are bent towards those useless animals which can be made the objects of fondling and which compared with other animals play a minor role in the great field of scientific experimentation."

Within a few years, the concern over experimental dogs crystallized into a fear that pets were being stolen and sold to research institutions. The specter of "dog-napping" became central to the activist rhetoric starting in the 1910s, says Lederer, and soon showed up in animal-welfare exhibitions and pamphlets with titles like Guard Your Dog. Meanwhile, the dog-theft meme percolated through the media—and not only in the newspapers of ardent anti-vivisectionist William Randolph Hearst. In the early 1920s, the New York Times offered regular coverage of a gang of "auto-pirates" who pilfered more than 150 animals from wealthy estates on Long Island. That story, and others like it, were summed up in a Times headline from February 1922: "Stealing Fine Dogs a Regular Industry … Most Intelligent of Their Kind, but Have Never Learned How Not To Be Stolen."

The epidemic of pet theft received intermittent coverage over the next few decades. With the re-emergence of the animal welfare movement in the 1960s—and the disappearance of Pepper in Pennsylvania—it became a national story.  


At the turn of the century, animal activists organized their campaigns around research dogs and cats, but science was already moving in a new direction. Mendel's ideas had been rediscovered in 1900 and the term genetics coined in 1906; the new science of heredity created a sudden need for organisms whose exact ancestry was known and controlled.   Within a few years, the perception and practice of biomedical research had begun to diverge: While humane societies were worrying about missing pets, researchers were shifting to a new set of standardized, purpose-bred laboratory organisms—the rat, the mouse and the fruit fly.