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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Laika the space dog.
Laika the space dog

The dog remained a vital tool in biomedical research for more than 300 years and was the vehicle for a remarkable run of medical breakthroughs. Ernest Starling's research on dogs led him to declare the existence of "hormones" in 1905. In 1921, Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin as a treatment for their colony of dogs with surgery-induced diabetes. In 1923, George Whipple used a Dalmatian-English bulldog cross to create a model of pernicious anemia, then cure the disease with supplements of liver. * And shortly before Pepper's death, a stray mutt plucked from the streets in Moscow became the first animal to be launched into orbit. Though that dog died from stress and overheating only a few hours into the mission, the feasibility of human spaceflight was reported around the world.

By the 1960s, Furman and his colleagues at Montefiore Hospital were using a few hundred dogs for research every year, while larger institutions went through as many as 9,000. Rep. Joseph Resnick, the upstate lawmaker who attempted to intervene on behalf of the Lakavages on the very day that Pepper was killed, would later assert to the newspapers (and his fellow members of Congress) that the annual number of dogs used in federally funded research had reached 1.75 million.

But the dog-napping of Pepper marked the beginning of the end of canine experimentation. Outrage over her demise, and the theft and killings of other family pets, would soon turn public opinion—and federal law—against the use of dogs in biomedical research. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of American science after World War II had already created a new industry in purpose-bred, standardized lab animals—and the thriving trade in stray mutts and stolen pets would soon be replaced by an assembly line of laboratory flies, rats, and mice. Pepper's death in the summer of 1965 signaled the end of an era.

Pepper Goes to Washington

Rep. Joseph Resnick planned to take Pepper's story to the Capitol even before anyone knew she was dead. The cigar-chomping congressman had been recruited to Pepper's cause on Friday, July 2, 1965, when a Pennsylvania family, the Lakavages, arrived in his upstate New York district in search of their missing Dalmatian. A local dealer had refused to let the family search his farm, and Resnick's appeals—to the dealer, the state troopers, and even the FBI—had come to nothing.

It soon emerged that the stolen pet never made it upstate. Pepper had been sold instead to a research hospital in the Bronx and her chest cut open in a botched test of a new cardiac pacemaker. Resnick commended Julia Lakavage, who drove 130 miles with her daughters and grandson in an effort to find Pepper, for "following through" and promised that he would take up their cause as "dog's best friend" in Washington.

Seven days after Pepper's death, Resnick introduced a dog-napping bill on the House floor. He wanted government licensing for the dealers and laboratories that traded in dogs and cats, and proposed that the theft of these animals be made a federal offense. For Resnick's colleagues in the House, the bill, born in a moment of outrage on the eve of the holiday weekend, must have seemed almost grotesque in its insignificance. On the very day it was introduced, they approved the Voting Rights Act, while the Senate agreed to add Medicare to the Social Security program. Yet little H.R. 9743—Pepper's law—would elicit more public engagement in the months that followed than either of these watershed measures. Resnick's bill broke a grueling stalemate over animal-welfare legislation and broke open a dispute that had lingered for 20 years between humanitarian activists and the emergent biomedical industry.

On Aug. 24, 1966, the president signed a more ambitious version of the proposal into law. But that was just the beginning. What began as a measure to prevent pet theft would soon become the most comprehensive animal-welfare legislation in U.S. history.

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Ruff may have been a stray, or he may have been stolen; in any case, the article that accompanied his photograph in the New York Times hardly dwelled upon his provenance—the animal was identified only as "a friendly dog of uncertain ancestry" who had somehow ended up in the hands of the brilliant, Brooklyn-based heart surgeon, Adrian Kantrowitz. In 1958, Kantrowitz had dissected out the left half of Ruff's diaphragm, along with its major nerves and blood vessels, and wrapped the whole assemblage around his aorta. This "booster heart" could be stimulated to rhythmic contractions by a set of implanted, radio-controlled electrodes. At the time of his publicity photo, Ruff had survived for 18 months after the operation; now he was being honored for his efforts with a silver collar and official designation as the "Research Dog Hero Award" winner for 1959.

The silver collar, sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of dogdom," had been concocted in 1946 by the National Society for Medical Research, as part of a broad effort to defend the practice of animal experimentation from its most vocal critics. Those critics—the so-called "anti-vivisectionists"—had a powerful ally in William Randolph Hearst, who used his network of newspapers to editorialize against sadistic "dog torturers." Scientists believed it would take a major publicity campaign to overcome Hearst's hostile media empire, and the silver collar was one of their tactics.

Concern over animal welfare surged in the years after World War II, as the practice of biomedical research moved out of the private labs and become a massive public enterprise. The National Institutes of Health were consolidated in 1944 under the Public Health Service Act, and over the two decades that followed—running up until the time that Pepper was stolen in Pennsylvania—its budget rose more than 30,000 percent, from $2.8 million in 1945 to almost $1 billion in 1965.