Pepper, the stolen dog who changed American science.

The stolen dog that changed American science.
June 1 2009 10:53 AM

Where's Pepper?

In the summer of 1965, a female Dalmatian was stolen from a farm in Pennsylvania. Her story changed America.

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Ehrman looked up the House representative for Ulster County, N.Y., and found Joseph Resnick—a crusading liberal who had just defeated a 14-year incumbent in an overwhelmingly Republican district. There couldn't have been a man in Congress more different in style from Joe Clark. Resnick was a high-school dropout, a former television repairman who had made tens of millions of dollars by inventing the preassembled, rotating TV antenna. According to the New York Times, the stocky, cigar-smoking business executive rode around in a "telephone-equipped gold-color Continental." His stint in Washington was brief—Resnick died of unspecified causes in a Las Vegas hotel room in 1969—but unusually productive. During four years in office, he worked up a distinguished résumé on civil rights and agricultural reform, and patented new machines for blow-molding and decorating plastic containers.

Resnick was eager to intercede for the Lakavages and their missing dog. He placed a call to Arthur Nersesian that same afternoon and made a personal request that Julia be allowed to check the premises. Not without a search warrant and charges in writing, the ex-cop replied.

Their exchange was described in the next day's Morning Call: "Stolen … Sold? Trail Leads to N.Y.—Love for Dog Stirs Two States."

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Resnick was outraged. He contacted the FBI on Friday evening to find out if moving stolen dogs across state lines was a federal crime, and then he pressured the Ulster County district attorney's office for a search warrant. But Nersesian held firm, and no one set foot on his farm to look for Pepper.

There was a fog in Allentown on Monday, July 5, and thunderstorms delivered some much-needed rain. At some point during the holiday weekend, Fay Brisk had called the Pennsylvania state troopers, and soon the dog law enforcement officer down in Everett, Fred Sponsler, was investigating Pepper's whereabouts as well. Bill Miller told the authorities that he'd gotten the Dalmatian bitch from another friend of Jack Clark's named Russ Hutton, who'd bought the dog off Jack Clark. Sponsler said he couldn't find Clark to confirm the story, but he nevertheless concluded that Clark had gotten the dog in question from "an Altoona man who got rid of it for eating chickens."

In any case, Bill Miller revealed one more crucial detail. He'd never actually driven up to Nersesian's farm in High Falls, he admitted to the police. Instead, he'd loaded up his truck at the shelter in Easton on Wednesday night and gone straight into Manhattan. On the previous Thursday, June 30, he sold a dozen dogs and both goats to Einstein, St. Luke's, and Columbia hospitals. And then he drove up to the Bronx and unloaded the rest of the animals—including both Dalmatians—to Montefiore Hospital. He would have been paid about $15 for Pepper and perhaps $300 for the entire truckload of animals.

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The troopers gave Fay Brisk the news first, and she telephoned over to Montefiore that night. The switchboard operators told her no one was working in the animal quarters to answer her questions. Years later, Brisk would claim to have heard the jangling of dog tags at the other end of the line when she finally got through the next morning. Yes, someone at the hospital told her, the two Dalmatians did come in the previous week, but no, the older one was no longer there. On Friday, while Julia Lakavage was talking to the state troopers in Ulster County, her dog Pepper was splayed out on an operating table in a large building on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Medical researchers had tried to implant her with an experimental cardiac pacemaker, but the procedure went awry, and she died. The dog's body had already been cremated.

A hospital spokesman explained later that the order had gone out for six male Dalmatians, to be paid for by weight. The dealer had brought in two females instead.

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