In the summer of 1965, a female Dalmatian was stolen from a farm in Pennsylvania. Her story changed America.
Arthur Nersesian was 55 years old, an avid boxing fan, and a retired New York City cop. For two decades he'd run down hoodlums out of the 3rd Precinct in Chinatown, but in 1957, he packed up his place in Queens and moved the family to a plot of land upstate, with a Dutch stone house, a couple of grain silos, and a gambrel-roofed barn.
The property was ringed with "No Trespassing" signs, and locals remember an alarm that went off whenever a vehicle entered the driveway. Nersesian had other ways of keeping out strangers. According to the Morning Call, he'd already filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against a New York SPCA unit for allegedly entering the farm without permission.
The state troopers on Route 209 may well have known the Nersesians were selling dogs for research down in the city. (The family is still proud of the farm's contribution to the early heart-transplant studies in Brooklyn.) But there wasn't much the police could do when the Lakavages arrived that afternoon. A trooper informed Julia that a search would be impossible without a warrant, and there was no way to get a warrant without hard evidence that Pepper was on the premises. "She wasn't going to go out there," the trooper said later. "She was kind of upset because she was pretty attached to the dog."
With no way to get onto the Nersesian farm, Julia turned the car around. By Friday night, the family was back home in Slatington. Reporters called the house that night, but Julia was reluctant to discuss the case, fearing that too much publicity would put Pepper's life in danger. "It's just a long-shot chance," she said, finally. "I didn't mean to make trouble, I only wanted a chance to look at the dogs to see if my dog was there."
At the offices of the humane societies and other animal welfare groups in Washington, 47-year-old Fay Brisk was known as the "dog dealers' Madame Defarge." A former member of the Women's Army Corps, Brisk had gotten kicked out of the military for marrying a fellow officer without permission, and took a job as an information specialist with the government. She was still on the federal payroll in the 1960s, detailed to the White House with the Small Business Administration. On weekends, though, Brisk would sometimes travel back to Berks County, Pa., where she grew up. There she would pursue her decadeslong obsession with animal welfare.
Brisk's hometown was just 20 miles from the dog-and-cat auctions of the Green Dragon, and she'd worked as a reporter for the Reading Eagle and the Philadelphia Record. Over the years she cultivated a rich network of sources and friends among the animal traders.
One of those sources tipped off Brisk about Julia Lakavage and the search for Pepper. She may have been following the events from her home in Georgetown, or it's possible she traveled to High Falls, N.Y., to meet Julia in person. In any event, she learned on the afternoon of July 2 that the Lakavages had been denied entry to the Nersesian farm and that the local authorities were reluctant to deliver a search warrant. She decided to take the matter to the Capitol.
Brisk called her friend Christine Stevens, founder and chief lobbyist of the Animal Welfare Institute. Stevens was elegant, cultivated, and as well-connected as anyone in Washington. Her husband, Roger, had worked closely with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; a few months later, he would be tapped as the founding chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Stevens were also close with a patrician Pennsylvania senator named Joe Clark. At Christine's urging, Clark had introduced a series of unsuccessful laboratory-animal-care bills dating back to 1960.
Sen. Clark had all but shut down his office for the July 4 holiday. Weekend coverage fell to a junior staffer named Sara Ehrman. She answered when the call about Pepper came in late on Friday afternoon. Ehrman would eventually become a major player in the Democratic Party, a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and a close friend to the Clintons. But in the summer of 1965 she was a peon in Joe Clark's office. "I don't even like dogs," she says now, with renewed pique. But she passed on the message, and word came back from the senator: "Do what you're supposed to do for Christine."