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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Graph of Lab Animals Counted Under Animal Welfare Act.

Like dogs, miniature pigs were big enough to operate on but not so big that they couldn't be housed and handled. Porcine skin turned out to be so similar to our own that it could be used as a temporary patch for burn patients and a vehicle for the study of melanoma. Mini-pigs were also excellent subjects for the study of cardiovascular fitness, atherosclerosis, obesity, and diabetes.

A total of 260,000 dogs were used by U.S. labs in 1967, the year that Pepper's dog-napping law took effect. Over the next four decades, that number would drop by almost 75 percent. Surely some of that decline has come in response to continuing pressure from animal-welfare activists. (Research on miniature pigs isn't as likely to draw angry protests.) More significant, though, was the fact that science itself had changed.

The Laboratory Animal Welfare Act passed in 1966 gave some protection to a small number of species in limited settings. But the animal rights activists, emboldened by success, were soon able to broaden its scope. The first major amendments arrived in 1970; from then on, the law would be known simply as the "Animal Welfare Act," and its reach extended to circuses, zoos, shows, and wholesale pet dealers. The laboratories, too, had new responsibilities: Where the 1966 version had applied only to research holding facilities—with cage-size and feeding requirements, for example—now the experiments themselves were subject to humane standards, including pain management whenever possible. But what might have been the most significant change to Pepper's law was a broadening of the very definition of the word animal. Instead of protecting only the most lovable critters—dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs—the new law could be taken to apply to every other warm-blooded animal used in the lab.

That dramatic mandate was handed over to Dale Schwindaman, a federal veterinarian who had been summoned to Washington four years earlier to help draft the original regulations related to Pepper's law. It hadn't been easy for the Department of Agriculture to enforce the original act; now Schwindaman had to figure out how to address a raft of new responsibilities.

The numbers were grim. A laboratory-animal survey conducted by the National Academies of Science found that the original covered species—the cute animals—made up just 7 percent of the total used in U.S. labs. In addition to the 260,000 dogs, there were 100,000 cats and 800,000 hamsters. But there were 30 million rats and mice. "The job was too big," Schwindaman says. Full coverage of warm-blooded species would have given the USDA the obligation to supervise every last junior college that used rodents or chick embryos for teaching. "The math just did not allow it. … We couldn't use the National Guard to make all of these inspections. We didn't have the force."

With Schwindaman's help, the USDA put in place in 1972 a special exemption for rats, mice, and birds, allowing scientists to treat them however they saw fit—in cages of any size, in experiments with any degree of pain and suffering. That exemption remains in force, despite Schwindaman's later attempts to overturn it. To this day, 95 percent of the animals used in research labs receive no federal protection whatsoever under the Animal Welfare Act.

In the fall of 2001, an undercover animal activist took a job cleaning rat and mouse cages on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. Over the next six months, she would collect more than 40 hours of footage on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with a camera hidden under her lab coat. The video showed researchers marking newborn mice by amputating their toes and cutting the brains from baby rats without anesthesia. Rodents were trampled to death in overcrowded cages, left to die in garbage bins, or allowed to suffer with swollen tumors and open sores.

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The USDA had just agreed, in 2000, to extend laboratory-animal protections to rodents and birds. (The decision, by Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman, came out of a legal settlement with animal rights groups, which had sued the government over its arbitrary redefinition of the term animal almost 30 years before.) By the spring of 2002, PETA was already fighting to keep the old rule from coming back. Sen. Jesse Helms had added a line to that year's Farm Bill that would make the exclusion of purpose-bred rats, mice, and birds a matter of federal law. ("A rodent could do a lot worse than live out its life span in research facilities," he said.) The footage from Chapel Hill—which PETA sent to every member of the conference committee—did little to change the debate: When Congress reached a final agreement on the Farm Bill a week later, the Helms amendment was still in place. Protection for rats, mice, and birds had once again been stripped from the Animal Welfare Act.

"That was such an enormous disappointment," says PETA's director of laboratory investigations, Kathy Guillermo. The story of a single dog had once been enough to pass the country's most important animal-welfare law, but evidence of repeated rodent abuse in a government-funded lab barely made the news. "It's because it's mice and rats," Guillermo says. How do you protect an animal that most Americans would be happy to kill themselves with glue traps, even, or poison?

1937 Life Magazine cover.
1937 Life Magazine cover story about C.C. Little's cancer research mice

The rodents' PR problem helps explain how they came to infest science and medicine in the first place. C.C. Little, the inventor of the modern lab mouse and founder of the Jackson Laboratory, had long used "the age old enmity of woman and the Muridae" as a sales pitch for his model organism. Writing in American Naturalist in 1939, he noted that "it has been difficult to keep at fever heat a sufficient level of sympathy for the rodent similar to that which the dog or cat engenders." Indeed, when controversy erupted over Pepper's death in 1965, Little's company was quietly supplying physiologists with close to 1 million mice every year. (Today, the sales of rats and mice dominate a $1.4 billion global market in laboratory animals.)