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.

First, Ivan Pavlov would sever a dog's esophagus and sew the loose ends to its throat, leaving a pair of adjacent holes that connected, by separate passages, to its mouth and stomach. Then he'd slice through the dog's abdomen, carve a hole in the wall of its stomach, and stitch open another permanent wound.

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The dog, left hungry from the night before, would be harnessed to a wooden stand and presented with a bowl of raw meat. No matter how much it ate, it never got full—the dog chewed and swallowed, but the masticated meat would erupt from its esophageal opening and dribble back into the bowl, whereupon the dog would lap it up all over again. In the meantime, a glass tube attached to the animal's stomach opening allowed its gastric secretions to drip into a collecting bottle, so they could be filtered, analyzed, and sold to the public as a remedy for dyspepsia.

As historian Daniel P. Todes writes in Pavlov's Physiology Factory, these thrice-perforated animals enabled a new approach to science—the chronic experiment—and a series of discoveries about the nervous control of digestion for which Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in 1904. (At the time of the award, he was just beginning to study how animals learned to salivate at the sound of a buzzer.) * In 1935, just before his death, Pavlov approved the design for a monument to his canine test subjects, erected on the grounds of the Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg, Russia. A bronze plaque on one side depicts the dogs on laboratory tables, tied to their wooden frames with their fistulas open. "We must painfully acknowledge that, precisely because of its great intellectual development, the best of man's domesticated animals—the dog—most often becomes the victim of physiological experiments," he had written in 1893. "The dog is irreplaceable; moreover it is extremely touching. It is almost a participant in the experiments conducted upon it, greatly facilitating the success of the research by its understanding and compliance."

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No one can say exactly how old Pepper was in the summer of 1965, but every member of the Lakavage family remembers her gentle disposition. There were plenty of other dogs racing around their farm at the bottom of Blue Mountain, but the Dalmatian named Pepper—trim and affectionate, pelted with splotches of black—was always Mom's favorite.

Photograph of Julia and Peter Lakavage.
Julia and Peter Lakavage

Julia Lakavage preferred to take in strays, but she made an exception when she saw Pepper at the decrepit Spatterdash kennel a few miles down the road. Julia and her husband, Peter, lived on 82 acres in the hills above Slatington, Pa., two hours due west of New York City. Peter had a job with Bethlehem Steel; Julia had polished shells there during the World War II, but by the 1960s she was working the night shift as a nurse for the Good Shepherd Home in Allentown. They had four daughters—Star, Carol, Kathy, and Peggy—and a 7-year-old grandson named Michael.

Pepper loved a car ride, and some nights Julia would take her along to the hospital in Allentown. If Julia were the only nurse assigned to the floor, she'd bring the dog on her rounds of nursing home residents and handicapped orphans. The patients loved it, remembers Star. They would call for Pepper as soon as they heard her paws click-clacking along the linoleum hallway. One day, Julia promised, she'd buy "Nurse Pepper" a little white hat.

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But Pepper didn't come to work with Julia on the night of Tuesday, June 22, 1965. Sometime that evening, the Lakavage children let Pepper out onto the back porch for her usual evening stroll. When they opened the door half an hour later, the dog wasn't there. "Pepper always came, no matter what," says Michael. "You'd go to let her back in, and she'd be laying on the porch, waiting." For the first time that any of them could remember, Pepper was nowhere to be seen. Michael remembers standing in front of the house, calling into the darkness.

By the next morning, the Lakavages knew for sure that Pepper was gone.

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