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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Brisk's hometown was just 20 miles from the dog-and-cat auctions of the Green Dragon, and she'd worked as a reporter for the Reading Eagle and the Philadelphia Record. Over the years she cultivated a rich network of sources and friends among the animal traders.

One of those sources tipped off Brisk about Julia Lakavage and the search for Pepper. She may have been following the events from her home in Georgetown, or it's possible she traveled to High Falls, N.Y., to meet Julia in person. In any event, she learned on the afternoon of July 2 that the Lakavages had been denied entry to the Nersesian farm and that the local authorities were reluctant to deliver a search warrant. She decided to take the matter to the Capitol.

Brisk called her friend Christine Stevens, founder and chief lobbyist of the Animal Welfare Institute. Stevens was elegant, cultivated, and as well-connected as anyone in Washington. Her husband, Roger, had worked closely with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; a few months later, he would be tapped as the founding chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Stevens were also close with a patrician Pennsylvania senator named Joe Clark. At Christine's urging, Clark had introduced a series of unsuccessful laboratory-animal-care bills dating back to 1960.

Sen. Clark had all but shut down his office for the July 4 holiday. Weekend coverage fell to a junior staffer named Sara Ehrman. She answered when the call about Pepper came in late on Friday afternoon. Ehrman would eventually become a major player in the Democratic Party, a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and a close friend to the Clintons. But in the summer of 1965 she was a peon in Joe Clark's office. "I don't even like dogs," she says now, with renewed pique. But she passed on the message, and word came back from the senator: "Do what you're supposed to do for Christine."

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.