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The Forgotten History of the British Pet Holocaust

The history of 750,000 British pet dogs and cats euthanized in WWII.

Key points

  • Just before WWII there were fears that war with Germany would result in food shortages.
  • A British governmental committee recommended that pet dogs and cats be put to death to conserve food resources.
  • Within the first four days of WWII, 400,000 pet dogs and cats were slaughtered.
  • Later the government used relationships with pets as examples of British resilience, and erased the pet holocaust from memory.
Jan Willemsen/Flickr Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Source: Jan Willemsen/Flickr Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The love that the British people have for their pets, especially dogs and cats, is so well-accepted that it is virtually recognized as part of the national character. Given that fact, how did the British needlessly slaughter 750,000 dogs and cats during World War II? Furthermore, how can it be that this event is so little-known and seldom discussed?

A True Holocaust

The full picture of what happened can be credited to Hilda Kean, a British historian who was the former Dean and Director of Public History at Ruskin College, Oxford.

Before we look at how it came about, it is important to understand the magnitude of what happened. In early September 1939, during the first four days of World War II, over 400,000 dogs and cats were killed. This number constituted some 26 percent of London's pets at the time. It is a number six times greater than the number of civilian deaths in the UK from bombing during the entire war. Furthermore by the time the campaign was finished this number would nearly double.

The Source of the Problem

We can trace this tragedy back to the summer of 1939. Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. However, the inevitability of the conflict was clear at the beginning of the year. For this reason, a number of defense committees were formed to prepare the nation should the British homeland become a target. One such was the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC).

NARPAC estimated that the pet population in England was around 6 to 7 million dogs and cats. The committee noted that the advent of war would mean, not only the potential for air raids but also the likelihood of food rationing and major food shortages. NARPAC worried that people would be tempted to share scarce food resources with their pets and thus declared that "to have a pet while the nation goes to war is an unaffordable luxury."

NARPAC published its recommendations in the pamphlet "Advice to Animal Owners." The pamphlet advised:

"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."

National Archive/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Source: National Archive/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As if to punctuate the seriousness of this suggestion, the inner cover of the pamphlet contained a full-page advertisement for the Cash Captive Bolt Pistol which was presented as "the standard instrument for the humane destruction of domestic animals."

The committee's advice was printed in almost every newspaper and announced on the BBC. During interviews with NARPAC committee members, some noted that they could even provide a rental service for such slaughter guns.

A Quiet Massacre

When Neville Chamberlain announced that war was declared in 1939, many pet owners dutifully showed up at veterinary clinics and animal shelters to have their pets euthanized. There were reports of lines half a mile long, and of shortages of chloroform, which was the most common veterinary method for euthanasia. A year later, when London was first bombed in September 1940, there would be a second wave of pet owners lining up to have their pets killed. Some of these claimed that they remembered what happened in World War I when starving cats and dogs wandered the streets of London, abandoned, orphaned, and left to suffer deprivation and painful deaths. They wished to prevent their own pets from such needless suffering.

The Opposition

There was opposition to this holocaust. Veterinarians and animal charities such as the PDSA and RSPCA protested that the slaughter of pet animals was unnecessary, inhumane, and an abandonment of British morals. The Army's Veterinary Corp openly worried that many of these dogs who were being killed could well have served a useful military function. Susan Day in the Daily Mirror tried to stem the tide, writing "Putting your pets to sleep is a very tragic decision. Do not take it before it is absolutely necessary." But the pressure was too great and many of the animal shelters reported that their hastily set up euthanasia centers were working around the clock.

One of the oldest animal shelters in Britain is Battersea, which opened its doors in 1860. It survived both world wars and still is in existence today. It did its best to stop the massacre. Even though there were just four full-time staff members at Battersea, the shelter managed to feed and care for 145,000 dogs during the course of the war. In addition, it provided a field in Ilford (East London) where about 500,000 animals were buried, many from the first week of the war.

There was clear governmental duplicity here. Throughout the course of the war, British propaganda would use the German mistreatment of animals as a rallying point. For example, when German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop and his staff hastily abandoned their British Embassy they left behind his pet dog (a Chow named Baerchen). This abandonment was widely touted as proof of the Nazi's lack of empathy for animals. An article in the Daily Mirror cited this incident as animal cruelty ran the same day (September 7) that the Times reported that the animal shelters were overflowing with pets brought in to be euthanized because of the government's recommendation.

Why It Is Forgotten

A clear attempt to write this holocaust out of history began during the war. Although the initial advice for people to kill their pets as part of the war effort was never withdrawn, there were no further official publications reiterating that recommendation. Instead, the press began to fill up with stories of civilians killed in bombings alongside their beloved pets or dogs comforting wounded people, and these would be offered as symbols of England's compassion for animals. Photos of military and civil defense personnel rescuing puppies from bombed-out buildings were run prominently, along with commentaries contrasting these humanitarian actions with the indiscriminate evil of the German war machine.

At the beginning of the war, the pet massacre received a lot of attention, but like painful events occurring in a person's life, the memories now seem to be repressed. The historian Hilda Kean reports that when she first approached the archives division of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for information about this slaughter of pets, she was told, via email, "There is no evidence in our surviving records of the time of any 'massacre' of pets at the start of WW2." Kean notes that this statement flies in the face of RSPCA magazine's Animal World report in October 1939 that "the work of destroying animals was continued, day and night, during the first week of the war."

As Freud noted, the first line of defense against something emotionally distressing that is happening now is denial. However, the first line of defense for something that evokes guilt and distress that happened in the past is repression — namely eliminating the event from memory. Although he was talking about individuals, apparently the same mechanisms are used by nations.

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References

Gardiner, A. (2018). The Human-Animal War. Society & Animals. 26 (6). Https://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-12341570

Kean, H. (2017). The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

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