There are many things that Britons have been labelled. Napoleon said we were a nation of shopkeepers, he likely meant it as an insult. We’re also famously a nation of gardeners and compared to most others, animal lovers. Perhaps it is that other trait of supporting the underdog as there aren’t many things that are more of an underdog than animals, or more dog than err dog.
One of the things that the U.K. brought to the European Union was an improvement in animal welfare standards and it has been in the news recently that being no longer bound by EU regulations we will be able to ban the export of live animals, something that would be illegal until now.
Things weren’t quite as rosy in 1939 and in the early day of World War II a government pamphlet led to a massive cull of British pets. As many as 750,000 British pets were killed in just one week as the result of a public information campaign that caused an extraordinary reaction among anxious Britons.
In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) was formed. It drafted a notice – Advice to Animal Owners.The pamphlet said: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It concluded: “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.”
The advice was printed in almost every newspaper and announced on the BBC. It was “a national tragedy in the making”.
Author Clare Campbell who wrote a great book by the title Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939 -1945 recalls a story about her uncle. “Shortly after the invasion of Poland, it was announced on the radio that there might be a shortage of food. My uncle announced that the family pet Paddy would have to be destroyed the next day.”
After war was declared on 3 September 1939, pet owners thronged to vets’ surgeries and animal homes. Animal charities, the PDSA, the RSPCA and vets were all opposed to the killing of pets and very concerned about people just dumping animals on their doorsteps at the start of the war.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home opened its doors in 1860 and survived both wars. “Many people contacted us after the outbreak of war to ask us to euthanise their pets – either because they were going off to war, they were bombed, or they could no longer afford to keep them during rationing,” a spokesman says.
“Battersea actually advised against taking such drastic measures and our then manager Edward Healey-Tutt wrote to people asking them not to be too hasty.”
In the first few days of war, PDSA hospitals and dispensaries were overwhelmed by owners bringing their pets for destruction. PDSA founder Maria Dickin reported: “Our technical officers called upon to perform this unhappy duty will never forget the tragedy of those days.”
In Memoriam notices started to appear in the press. “Happy memories of Iola, sweet faithful friend, given sleep September 4th 1939, to be saved suffering during the war. A short but happy life – 2 years, 12 weeks. Forgive us little pal,” said one in Tail-Wagger Magazine.
The first bombing of London in September 1940 prompted more pet owners to rush to have their pets destroyed. Many people panicked, but others tried to restore calm. “Putting your pets to sleep is a very tragic decision. Do not take it before it is absolutely necessary,” urged Susan Day in the Daily Mirror.
Sadly perhaps, the government pamphlet had sowed a powerful seed. People were basically told to kill their pets and they did. They killed 750,000 of them in the space of a week – it was a real tragedy, a complete disaster.
It was just another way of signifying that war had begun. Society became almost entirely militarised and devoted to the war-effort and Britain in WW2 remains the society that devoted more of its people and resources than any other nation in any war before or since. It was one of things people had to do when the news came; evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the pet.
It was the lack of food, not bombs, that posed the biggest threat to wartime pets. There was no food ration for cats and dogs. As war approached, families increasingly worried about feeding their animals and its understandable given how little food there was for humans.
Of course many owners refused to slaughter their beloved family pet and were able to make do. Pauline Caton was just five years old at the time and lived in Dagenham. She remembers “queuing up with the family at Blacks Market in Barking to buy horsemeat to feed the family cat”.
There are many wonderful though copyrighted photos of rescuers going through the rubble of buildings to find dogs when logically speaking it wouldn’t have been the best use of resources. There were just four staff at Battersea, the home managed to feed and care for 145,000 dogs during the course of the war which must have taken extraordinary levels of dedication.
In the middle of the pet-culling mayhem, some people tried desperately to intervene. The Duchess of Hamilton – both wealthy and a cat lover – rushed from Scotland to London with her own statement to be broadcast on the BBC.
“Homes in the country urgently required for those dogs and cats which must otherwise be left behind to starve to death or be shot.” Being a duchess she had a bit of money and established an animal sanctuary. The “sanctuary” was a heated aerodrome in Ferne. The Duchess sent her staff out to rescue pets from the East End of London. Hundreds and hundreds of animals were taken back initially to her home in St John’s Wood. She apologised to the neighbours who complained about the barking.
But at a time of imminent invasion and the nightly coming raids brought such uncertainty, many pet owners were swayed by the worst-case scenario. People were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the ‘luxury’ of a pet during wartime.
The Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the RSPCA tried to stop this, particularly as dogs were needed for the war effort.
Given the unimaginable human suffering that followed over the six years of the war, it is perhaps understandable that the extraordinary cull of pets is not better known but the episode was just another unwanted sadness to people panicked and fearful at the start of hostilities.
It’s a story that is almost unknown because it’s one that is both so sad and also in some ways understandable. No-one wants to think that so many people did this, even if they thought it was for the best. Few heroic war-time tales would sound so good if the first chapter was about killing your beloved pet.