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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The beagles in the basement were kept there by the hundreds, locked in cages 2.5 feet wide and 3 feet long. In November 1959, just a month before Ruff's photo shoot, nationally syndicated journalist Ann Cottrell Free published her first account of the animal quarters at the South Building of the Department of Agriculture, where government scientists tested food dyes on animals that were deprived of exercise for years at a time. "Hundreds of dogs flung themselves against the bars of their cages, piled tier on tier," she wrote. "They were barking, screaming, whining, mute—and drooped their heads in the dark corners. Others circled ceaselessly in their cages."

The revelation that dogs—adorable beagles!—were being so cruelly mistreated just a 20-minute stroll down Independence Avenue from the Capitol Building had an immediate impact. Free distributed her articles to key members of the Senate appropriations committee, and Congress soon delivered $100,000 for new animal quarters in Beltsville, Md. During the same congressional session, Sen. John Cooper introduced the first comprehensive federal bill to protect laboratory animals.

Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania.
Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania

Prohibitions against cruelty to animals had been on the books of every state in the union (plus Alaska and Hawaii) since the start of World War I, but most of these were based on a New York statute from 1867, drafted by the gentleman activist and founder of the ASPCA, Henry Bergh. That law, and many of those that followed, made a point of excluding animals subject to "properly conducted scientific experiments or investigations."  

Cooper's 1960 bill would have established animal-care standards for any facility receiving federal research grants. Authored by Abe Fortas (a few years before he was named to the Supreme Court), the proposal drew heavily from the United Kingdom's Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which required that all users of laboratory animals register with the government and make annual reports of their research. An additional certification was required for anyone who wanted to perform painful experiments and yet another for painful work with dogs or cats.

Those terms may seem rather modest by today's standards, but in 1960 they set off a long debate over the extent to which scientific progress had been retarded by the laws in Britain. Indignant testimonials from British scientists were read before Congress, and the results of British surveys were published in the New York Times. American researchers attributed their extraordinary breakthroughs in open-heart and thoracic surgery to liberal policies on the use of dogs, and the Brits countered that they had, in fact, received more Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine than the Yanks, per capita.  

In any case, Cooper's bill—which had the support of Christine Stevens and the Animal Welfare Institute—was ridiculed by hard-core anti-vivisectionists, who lobbied against it as "a snare, a delusion and a fraud." A more restrictive version favored by the Humane Society soon followed, along with a scaled-down bid from the American Humane Association and an NSMR-backed pitch for the upgrade of government-funded animal facilities. Laboratory-animal bills of all types would be introduced by the dozens over the next five years; newspaper endorsements piled up. While angry debates raged among the animal rights activists, not a single proposal came close to being passed.

"Passions were high," remembered Ann Cottrell Free, "because nothing was happening."

Then came Pepper.

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Congress had little interest, at first, in the fact that someone's dog had perished in a medical experiment. It was Pepper's 10-day ordeal in the hands of scurrilous dog dealers that had inflamed Rep. Joseph Resnick and her journey across interstate highways that inspired his "dog-napping" bill in the summer of 1965. At hearings in September, he dispelled any notion that his proposal was intended to aid the anti-vivisectionists: "This bill is concerned entirely with the theft of dogs and cats," he said, "and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the indescribably filthy conditions in which they are kept by the dealer."

Indeed, the law didn't seem to have much bearing on the issues that were most important to animal-welfare groups. It focused only on dogs and cats and gave enforcement authority to the Department of Agriculture, which had close ties to the livestock industry. Worse, it took no position on the actual practice of research—all regulation would stop at the laboratory door. For Christine Stevens and her fellow moderates, though, the pet-theft bill was a chance to move forward.

They knew Pepper's story would strike a chord with the American public. Dog ownership was on the rise through the 1960s—one study found it increased by more than one-third—and stolen purebreds had been the subject of the enormously popular 1961 Walt Disney feature, 101 Dalmatians. ( Lady and the Tramp, with its own sad portrayal of canines in captivity, was reissued in 1962.)

In a matter of weeks, eight more dog-napping bills were brought to the floor of the House, and Joe Clark—whose office took the first call on Pepper's disappearance—introduced one in the Senate. By the following spring, Resnick's bill had spawned a total of 33 others.

Stories of pet theft multiplied just as rapidly in the newspapers. After tracing Pepper to Montefiore Hospital in July, activist Fay Brisk turned her attention to a purebred, black-and-white English setter that had vanished from a farm in Boyce, Va. That dog turned up at the NIH in Bethesda and was returned to its owner in August. A few months later, Brisk found a stolen Irish setter named Reds at a hospital in New York and sent him home to a family in suburban Philadelphia. Then there was Alvin, a black cocker from New Jersey, and Peanuts, a German shepherd from Falls Church, Va.

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Life Magazine article from Feb. 4, 1966

The most significant contribution to the dog-napping panic arrived in February 1966, when Life magazine released an eight-page photo essay, "Concentration Camps for Dogs." (A cover line warned, "Your dog is in cruel danger.") Life photographer Stan Wayman had joined Humane Society investigators on a raid of a dog dealer's farm in Maryland, where animals were chained to wooden boxes and left out in the cold to feed on frozen entrails. Christine Stevens distributed a copy of the article to every member of Congress.

Lawmakers claimed to be getting more mail on the subject of dog-napping than they were on Vietnam: The Senate commerce committee received 20,000 letters over the 12-month period beginning with Pepper's death; the House agriculture committee counted 60,000. At the beginning of March 1966, the House held two days of hearings to sort through the growing stack of animal welfare bills. The Humane Society's Dec Hogan testified to the ugly details of the raid in Maryland: The dealer, he said, "showed us a beagle, blind in one eye and pus running from the other." According to the New York Times, the huge hearing room was crammed with spectators, and the crowd spilled out into the hallway.

Meanwhile, the medical establishment was in retreat. The NSMR abandoned its Research Dog Hero program in 1965, the same year that one of its two founders was charged with fraud by the FDA. In the face of the publicity surrounding Pepper and the Life photo spread, the research lobby changed tactics: Now it would try only to moderate whatever bill was coming down the pipe. Scientists had good reason to worry. By that point, Resnick's original proposal to prevent the theft of dogs and cats had been expanded to cover the treatment of all warm-blooded laboratory animals, stolen or not.

Lobbyists for the universities and hospitals succeeded, at first, in scaling back the bill's most ambitious provisions, but a last-minute push in the Senate restored some of what had been stripped away. When the final version of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act was signed into law in August 1966, its guarantees of humane treatment extended both to the dealers' premises and to the research holding facilities where animals were kept before experiments. It now applied to every dog, cat, monkey, rabbit, hamster, and guinea pig in federally funded labs.

For the activists, though, Pepper's law was at best a foot in the door. The act protected the animals where they were housed, but it had no impact on their treatment inside the lab, where some of the most distressing cruelties were taking place. "This was the breakthrough and end of stalemate," said Free. "We decided, Well, we'll just have to go ahead and year after year, whenever we can, amend it and strengthen it, amend it and strengthen it."

That's just what they did.