The last word: Where’s Pepper?

Pets were once routinely snatched from America’s streets and slain in the name of science. In 1965, says Daniel Engber in, one family’s heartbreak roused the nation’s conscience.

No one can say exactly how old Pepper was in the summer of 1965, but every member of the Lakavage family remembers her gentle disposition. There were plenty of other dogs racing around the family’s 82-acre Pennsylvania farm, but the Dalmatian named Pepper—trim and affectionate—was always Mom’s favorite.

Some nights, Julia Lakavage would take Pepper along to the Good Shepherd Home in Allentown, where Lakavage worked as a nurse on the night shift. When she was the only nurse assigned to the floor, she’d bring the dog on her rounds of nursing-home residents and handicapped orphans. The patients loved it. They would call for Pepper as soon as they heard her paws click-clacking along the linoleum hallway.

But Pepper didn’t go to work with Julia on the night of Tuesday, June 22, 1965. Sometime that evening, the Lakavage children let Pepper out onto the back porch for her usual evening stroll. When they opened the door half an hour later, the dog wasn’t there. “Pepper always came, no matter what,” says Michael, Julia’s grandson, who was 7 at the time. “You’d go to let her back in, and she’d be lying on the porch, waiting.” This time, Pepper was nowhere to be seen. Michael remembers standing in front of the house, calling into the darkness.

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By the next morning, the Lakavages knew for sure that Pepper was gone.

Over the next few days, Julia mobilized her family in a desperate search for the missing dog. According to a short version of the incident that was published five months later, improbably, in the pages of Sports Illustrated, “all during the following week, a heartbroken Mrs. Lakavage advertised and hunted for her dog.” Indeed, no one in the family had ever seen Julia so upset. (“Dogs are like family members,” she would later tell a newspaper reporter, “children that don’t grow up.”)

Michael assumed that a neighbor had run over Pepper with a car. But Julia talked to someone who had seen a man near the Lakavage farm loading a healthy Dalmatian into the back of a truck.

For years, animal-welfare groups had been warning of nighttime forays by pet snatchers in unmarked vans. Stolen dogs, they said, were being sold to laboratories and subjected to painful experiments. In 1961, Walt Disney had released 101 Dalmatians—a hugely successful film about pet theft—and the Humane Society of the United States had begun to look into a network of illegal animal dealers operating across Pennsylvania and Maryland. Dec Hogan, a rough-and-tumble nightclub owner, was hired to pose as a dealer in the field. Along with another investigator, Hogan began to stake out the rural auctions where stray animals were traded before being shipped off to research laboratories. The team devoted much of its energy to a notorious Amish market down in Lancaster County, known as the Green Dragon, where livestock and other animals were sold every Friday. Hogan remembers vendors selling pies and cookies. He also remembers animal dealers—“grass-roots kinds of guys, doing it for a six-pack of beer”—carting in stray dogs for sale.

Likely at the suggestion of a local animal-rights activist, Julia Lakavage decided to investigate the Green Dragon market for herself. Three days after Pepper vanished, she put her 14-year-old daughter, Star, and grandson Michael into the back seat of her Ford Fairlane and drove an hour or so south to Lancaster County. Star still remembers rows of wire crates at the Green Dragon auction—filled with dogs and goats and stacked two and three on top of one another. But Pepper was nowhere to be found.

Almost 200 miles away, in the Pennsyl­vania mountains near Maryland, 77-year-old Jack Clark was getting ready for his own weekly animal swap. Clark lived out in the woods, and kept by his house an extensive menagerie of woodland critters—raccoons and skunks, groundhogs and foxes. But above all, he had dogs.

Clark made his living as a dogcatcher, and he kept hundreds of his quarry boxed up by the creek out back. Clark’s friends and fellow dealers would converge on his property every weekend to trade horses, goats, cats, and dogs while their children played on the ponies. Everyone in town knew Clark and his big green pickup with the wood-framed animal cab loaded on the back. But there was talk that Jack wasn’t just picking up strays, that he’d steal dogs out of people’s backyards and sell them off to medical labs in Philadelphia.

It’s impossible to know whether Clark made a dogcatching expedition up to Slatington, the Lakavages’ town, in June 1965. One way or another, though, Pepper seems to have ended up at his weekly swap on Sunday, June 27, five days after she disappeared.

By the 29th, Pepper was in the hands of Jack’s good friend Bill Miller.

Though Peter Lakavage knew that his wife had become frantic about Pepper, there was only so much he could do from a hospital bed. Peter had suffered a heart attack at about the time the dog disappeared, and he was still convalescing in an Allentown hospital on Friday, July 2, when he flipped open a copy of the local newspaper and came upon a small article about Miller.

Two days earlier, Miller had been stopped by local police just short of the New Jersey border and charged with “cruelty in transport.” On a day when temperatures reached 95 degrees, Miller had packed 18 dogs and two goats into a small, poorly ventilated enclosure in the back of his pickup. The animals, Lakavage read, had been kept overnight in the county animal shelter while authorities waited for Miller to return with a more suitable vehicle. But Miller had since reclaimed his haul and resumed his trip. When Lakavage read that two of the 18 dogs were female Dalmatians, he climbed out of bed and called his wife.

Within the hour, Julia Lakavage set off with Michael and Star again, this time on a 130-mile drive to find Arthur Nersesian’s farm, the “research holding facility” in upstate New York that Miller had identified as his cargo’s destination. At 2 that afternoon, she pulled off the highway at a New York State Police station. Would the troopers please accompany her to Nersesian’s nearby farm? She had reason to believe her Dalmatian had been taken there.

Nersesian was a 55-year-old retired New York City cop who had moved to rural High Falls several years earlier. His farmland property was ringed with “No Trespassing” signs, and locals today say that an alarm went off whenever a vehicle entered the driveway. Nersesian had other ways of keeping out strangers, too. According to the Allentown newspaper, he’d already filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against a New York Society for the Protection of Animals unit for allegedly entering the farm without permission.

Perhaps knowing this, a trooper informed Lakavage that a search would be impossible without a warrant, and that there was no way to get a warrant without hard evidence that Pepper was on the premises.

Upset, Lakavage turned her car around and headed home. Reporters called the house that night, but she was reluctant to discuss the case, fearing that 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.”

By then, Lakavage had acquired major allies.

At the offices of various animal-welfare groups in Washington, D.C., 47-year-old Fay Brisk was known as the “dog dealers’ Madame Defarge.” A former Pennsylvania newspaper reporter, Brisk worked as an information specialist for the federal Small Business Administration, but often spent her weekends pursuing a decades-long obsession with animal welfare. Brisk learned about the Lakavages’ search through the network of sources she’d developed among the region’s animal traders. When she heard that the Lakavages had been denied entry to the Nersesian farm, she decided to push the issue and immediately called her friend Christine Stevens, founder and chief lobbyist of the Animal Welfare Institute.

Stevens was as well-connected as anyone in Washington. (Her husband, Roger, was about to be appointed the founding chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.) The Stevenses were close with a patrician Pennsylvania senator, Joe Clark, who had previously introduced a series of animal-care bills at Christine’s urging. Do whatever you can for Christine, the senator told a junior staffer when the call came in about Pepper.

Though official Washington was beginning to close for the July 4 holiday weekend, the staffer, Sara Ehrman, looked up the House representative for Ulster County, N.Y., and found Joseph Resnick, a crusading freshman congressman and former television repairman who had made millions of dollars by inventing the preassembled, rotating TV antenna. Resnick was eager to intercede for the Lakavages and placed a call to Arthur Nersesian that same afternoon to personally request that Julia be allowed to check the premises. Not without a search warrant and charges in writing, the ex-cop replied.

Resnick was outraged. He pressured the county district attorney’s office for a search warrant but got nowhere. No one looking for Pepper managed to set foot on Nersesian’s farm.

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. At some point that weekend, the Pennsylvania State Police and a county dog-law-enforcement officer in Jack Clark’s area also began investigating Pepper’s whereabouts. Questioned again, Bill Miller told authorities that he hadn’t ever driven the dogs in question to Nersesian’s farm. Instead, when he loaded up his truck at the shelter in eastern Pennsylvania on Wednesday night, he had driven straight into New York City. On Thursday, June 30, he sold a dozen dogs and two goats to three Manhattan hospitals—Einstein, St. Luke’s, and Columbia. 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.

The troopers gave Fay Brisk the news first, and she telephoned Montefiore that night. She finally got some answers the following morning. Yes, someone at the hospital told her, the two Dalmatians did come in the previous week, but no, the one who matched Pepper’s description was no longer there.

In fact, while Julia Lakavage was trying to coax the New York state troopers to visit Nersesian’s farm, Pepper was splayed out on an operating table in a large building on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Medical researchers had tried to implant her with an experimental cardiac pacemaker, but the procedure went awry, and she died. The dog’s body had already been cremated.

Later, a hospital spokesman explained that the order had gone out for six male Dalmatians, and that the dealer had brought in the two females instead.

Pepper’s journey in the summer of 1965 sparked a broad panic over the theft of pets for biomedical research. Her death on an operating table in the Bronx would help animal-welfare advocates break a long-standing stalemate in Congress and push through the most significant animal-protection bill in American history.

From a five-part series of stories about Pepper that were written by Daniel Engber and published last week in ©Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC and Slate

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