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

The stolen dog that changed American science.
Dec. 22 2009 1:24 PM

Pepper

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

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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.

Brown Dogs and Red Herrings

On a balmy June morning in 2007, a pair of Pennsylvania congressmen gathered their colleagues in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building to show them a video. The lawmakers watched excerpts from a documentary that had aired on HBO the previous winter, about an unscrupulous dog dealer in Arkansas who was selling animals to laboratories. About 40 years after Pepper's story prompted the first federal dog-napping law, the wheels were in motion on another. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., introduced the film: "It's hard to believe that someone would steal people's pets and treat them this way."

Despite the film, the Pet Safety and Protection Act failed to pass in 2007, just as it has on a nearly annual basis for the last 13 years. Should it ever succeed, the law would ban the sale of any dogs and cats for research by "Class B" dealers—those who collect or buy their animals rather than breeding them themselves. (If such a designation had existed in 1965, it would have applied to the three men—Jack Clark, Russ Hutton, and Bill Miller—who handled Pepper during her 10-day journey to the dog lab.) That's not an unreasonable goal—as the HBO special showed, the Class B dealers are almost certainly engaging in some shady practices—but it hardly seems worth the sustained efforts of the nation's top animal welfare advocates. To put things in perspective, only about a dozen of these dealers remain in business, and they sold fewer than 3,000 dogs to research labs in 2008. Those dogs, stolen or not, represent just afew thousandths of 1 percent of all the animals used by American scientists.

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It's not too long ago that dogs and cats mattered a great deal to the practice of biomedical research. Today they're barely relevant—a tiny, shrinking line item on an enormous ledger of death. Something like 100 million animals are killed in experiments every year in the United States, yet groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute continue to treat a handful of pet thefts as a keystone issue. How did a broad struggle for the ethical treatment of lab animals turn into a border skirmish over missing pets?

Dogs were already a favorite of scientists when live-animal experimentation became widespread in the mid-19th century. Bred for docility over many thousands of years, the dog evolved as an ideal animal for the lab, simple to feed and house and poke and slice. It was also easy enough to imagine man's best friend as a stand-in (and a physiological model) for people: What's true for Pepper must be true for us; her heart must beat like mine.

Potential test subjects were everywhere in the early days of vivisection. A fascinating paper by historian Bert Hansen describes how American cities of the Gilded Age were beset with stray and wild dogs. In 1885, the New York Herald guessed there were some 300,000 in Manhattan and another 150,000 in neighboring Brooklyn. The scourge invited open brutality: Police officers were empowered to shoot dogs in the midst of rabies panics, and captured strays were crammed into cages and drowned in the East River.