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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Peter Lakavage knew his wife was frantic, but there was only so much he could do from a hospital bed in Allentown. Sometime in late June, Peter had suffered a heart attack, one of several he would have over the next few years. (The final, fatal blow came in 1969.) On the morning of Friday, July 2, Peter flipped open a copy of the Morning Call in his hospital room and saw an article following up on the previous day's story: "20 Animals Resume Their Trip." Among the dogs listed in the article were two purebred, female Dalmatians. Peter climbed out of bed and called his wife.

Julia dialed the Easton shelter as soon as she got the news. One of the impounded Dalmatians had been 8 months old, the shelter's proprietor told her, and the other was an adult. Julia could try to identify Pepper from the photographs taken Tuesday night, but those weren't due back from the developer until later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the county SPCA had already gotten in touch with animal activists in Washington, D.C., and in upstate New York, where Miller said he was taking the dogs.

Within the hour, Julia had her grandson Michael and daughter Star in the back seat of the Ford Fairlane and Carol in the front, and they set off on the 130-mile drive to High Falls, N.Y. Star remembers stopping at pay phones along the way so her mom could arrange meetings in New York and make sure there was someone to cover her nursing shift at Good Shepherd.

The family arrived that afternoon at an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Ulster County. Star remembers the well-appointed houses and manicured gardens: "Here we were, this little family from god-awful nowhere on some farm," she says, "and these people from really nice homes were talking to my mom. … I thought, 'Holy cow, we're just looking for our dog—we just want to know what happened to our dog.' " Having conferred with members of the local humane groups, Julia drove out in search of the Nersesian farm.

At 2 that afternoon, she arrived with her children at the New York State Police station on the highway near Kerhonkson. Julia described her search for Pepper and asked for help. Would the troopers please come up to the farm on Clove Valley Road?

Arthur and Helena Nersesian in 1963.
Arthur and Helena Nersesian in 1963

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.

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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."

Photograph of Fay Brisk.
Fay Brisk

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.