A 1965 dog-napping leads to the passage of the Animal Welfare Act.

The stolen dog that changed American science.
June 3 2009 7:22 AM

Pepper Goes to Washington

The most important animal-welfare law in America began with a stolen dog.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Rep. Joseph Resnick planned to take Pepper's story to the Capitol even before anyone knew she was dead. The cigar-chomping congressman had been recruited to Pepper's cause on Friday, July 2, 1965, when a Pennsylvania family, the Lakavages, arrived in his upstate New York district in search of their missing Dalmatian. A local dealer had refused to let the family search his farm, and Resnick's appeals—to the dealer, the state troopers, and even the FBI—had come to nothing.

It soon emerged that the stolen pet never made it upstate. Pepper had been sold instead to a research hospital in the Bronx and her chest cut open in a botched test of a new cardiac pacemaker. Resnick commended Julia Lakavage, who drove 130 miles with her daughters and grandson in an effort to find Pepper, for "following through" and promised that he would take up their cause as "dog's best friend" in Washington.

Seven days after Pepper's death, Resnick introduced a dog-napping bill on the House floor. He wanted government licensing for the dealers and laboratories that traded in dogs and cats, and proposed that the theft of these animals be made a federal offense. For Resnick's colleagues in the House, the bill, born in a moment of outrage on the eve of the holiday weekend, must have seemed almost grotesque in its insignificance. On the very day it was introduced, they approved the Voting Rights Act, while the Senate agreed to add Medicare to the Social Security program. Yet little H.R. 9743—Pepper's law—would elicit more public engagement in the months that followed than either of these watershed measures. Resnick's bill broke a grueling stalemate over animal-welfare legislation and broke open a dispute that had lingered for 20 years between humanitarian activists and the emergent biomedical industry.

On Aug. 24, 1966, the president signed a more ambitious version of the proposal into law. But that was just the beginning. What began as a measure to prevent pet theft would soon become the most comprehensive animal-welfare legislation in U.S. history.

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Ruff may have been a stray, or he may have been stolen; in any case, the article that accompanied his photograph in the New York Times hardly dwelled upon his provenance—the animal was identified only as "a friendly dog of uncertain ancestry" who had somehow ended up in the hands of the brilliant, Brooklyn-based heart surgeon, Adrian Kantrowitz.   In 1958, Kantrowitz had dissected out the left half of Ruff's diaphragm, along with its major nerves and blood vessels, and wrapped the whole assemblage around his aorta. This "booster heart" could be stimulated to rhythmic contractions by a set of implanted, radio-controlled electrodes. At the time of his publicity photo, Ruff had survived for 18 months after the operation; now he was being honored for his efforts with a silver collar and official designation as the "Research Dog Hero Award" winner for 1959.  

The silver collar, sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of dogdom," had been concocted in 1946 by the National Society for Medical Research, as part of a broad effort to defend the practice of animal experimentation from its most vocal critics. Those critics—the so-called "anti-vivisectionists"—had a powerful ally in William Randolph Hearst, who used his network of newspapers to editorialize against sadistic "dog torturers." Scientists believed it would take a major publicity campaign to overcome Hearst's hostile media empire, and the silver collar was one of their tactics.  

Concern over animal welfare surged in the years after World War II, as the practice of biomedical research moved out of the private labs and become a massive public enterprise. The National Institutes of Health were consolidated in 1944 under the Public Health Service Act, and over the two decades that followed—running up until the time that Pepper was stolen in Pennsylvania—its budget rose more than 30,000 percent, from $2.8 million in 1945 to almost $1 billion in 1965.

That money was feeding a biomedical research establishment with an insatiable need for live animal subjects. To fill the empty cages in Bethesda, Md., and elsewhere, the NSMR lobbied for the enactment of "pound seizure" laws, allowing the forcible appropriation for research of any unclaimed strays that would otherwise be put to death. The first pound seizure laws were passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1948, and many more followed. New York's Hatch-Metcalf Act allowed the seizure of cats and dogs not only from municipal pounds but from any private shelters holding government contracts.

These government incursions—and the rapid growth of the NIH—inflamed both animal-welfare activists and right-wing radicals. The two groups shared a deep suspicion of modern science and the growing power of technocrats in Washington. William Randolph Hearst straddled whatever line might have separated them, speaking out against animal research and warning his readers against New Deal bureaucracy and liberal academia. The anti-vivisection movement at large had at least incidental sympathies during this postwar era, with the reactionary (and sometimes anti-Semitic) campaigns against fluoridation and the polio vaccine.  

(The same right-wing rhetoric was also marshaled against the animal activists, who were attacked for being Communists or worse—Hitler and Mussolini were well-known vegetarians. A 1950 editorial from the Los Angeles Times growled that "the fanatics who oppose animal experimentation for sentimental reasons are being joined, and in some part led, by Communists and Communist sympathizers interested in sabotaging national defense.")

Christine Stevens.
Christine Stevens at the Humane Society of Washtenaw County, Mich., in the 1950s

Meanwhile, the burgeoning animal rights community gave rise to a Python-esque set of rival factions. The pound-seizure bills divided the moderates of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who were content to let scientists use unwanted strays in place of purpose-bred animals, from the hard-liners in the National Anti-Vivisection Society, who were opposed to any animal research whatsoever.   In 1951, D.C. activist Christine Stevens formed the Animal Welfare Institute with the express purpose of charting a "middle course" on animal research; she supported the use of pound animals but only for acute experiments under full anesthesia.   Three years later, a dispute over whether and how to address pound seizure broke up the American Humane Association, with a dissident faction going on to become the Humane Society of the United States. That group was itself divided in 1959, when one founder departed to form the Catholic Society for Animal Welfare.

The National Society for Medical Research continued its lobbying efforts and red-baiting publicity campaigns throughout the 1950s, but despite its divisions the animal-welfare movement—like other progressive causes of the time—was growing in strength. By the time the society gave Ruff its silver collar in New York, Christine Stevens and the rest of the dog lovers were ready to make their push in Congress.

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