The Pets’ War: On Hilda Kean’s “The Great Cat and Dog Massacre”

The Pets’ War: On Hilda Kean’s “The Great Cat and Dog Massacre”

In early September 1939, the citizens of London set about killing their pets. During the first four days of World War II, over 400,000 dogs and cats — some 26 percent of London’s pets — were slaughtered, a number six times greater than the number of civilian deaths in the UK from bombing during the entire war. It was a calm and orderly massacre. One animal shelter had a line stretching half a mile long with people waiting to turn their animals over to be euthanized. Crematoriums were overrun with the corpses of beloved dogs and cats; the fact that they could not run at night due to blackout conditions mandating the extinguishing of all manmade light sources so as not to aid German bombers’ navigation, further added to the backlog. Animal welfare societies ran out of chloroform, and shelters ran out of burial grounds. One local sanatorium offered a meadow, where half a million pets’ bodies were interred.

None of this was done of out any real necessity. Supplies were not yet scarce. The German blitzkrieg was not yet underway, and wouldn’t begin in earnest until September of the following year. Nor did the British government issue directives or instructions telling its citizens to kill their pets for the greater good of the Empire. Rather, it was a mass action that arose, apparently spontaneously, by a populace terrified by the new reality of war.

Almost immediately, people realized what a mistake they had made. By November, the Times was lamenting that “there is daily evidence that large numbers of pet dogs are still being destroyed for no better reason than that it is inconvenient to keep them alive — which, of course, is no reason at all, but merely shows an owner’s inability to appreciate his obligations towards his animal.” The BBC’s first disc jockey, Christopher Stone, likewise railed against the massacre on his popular radio program that same month, arguing that “[t]o destroy a faithful friend when there is no need to do so, is yet another way of letting the war creep into your home.” By then, the wholesale killing of pets had abated, and many of the animals who survived those first four days would last through the war. But the damage had already been done.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy, a new book by the historian Hilda Kean, sets out to understand how and why these horrific events took place. Despite its subtitle, it does not provide much in the way of a narrative of the massacre itself; the actual incidents of September 1939 occupy only one of nine chapters. Rather, Kean works backward and forward from that month to understand why British pet owners killed their dogs and cats in such large numbers, as well as to understand the legacy of that event. World War II, she observes, has long been known as the “People’s War” in Britain, “when, so the story goes, people pulled together and stood firm against the Nazis and withstood aerial bombardment with resilience.” But what about the Pets’ War? Writing about the conflict from the perspective of animals means approaching the subject obliquely, searching for traces that have been obscured, ferreting out voices among the voiceless. As such, Kean’s book works around the margins of World War II’s documentation: in diaries and letters, scattered asides in newspaper reports, unpublished memoirs, and forgotten advertisements. A passage in a young girl’s diary regarding a beloved pet rabbit bears for Kean far more useful information than an official state account. It is only in such marginal places that London’s lost animals appear.

The killings, Kean contends, had a great deal to do with the changing relationship of humans (and particularly Britons) to dogs and cats in the early 20th century. Like pigs, chickens, and cattle, humans learned to keep dogs and cats around because they were useful to us: we domesticated dogs for security and hunting, cats for pest control. Their status as companion animals was initially just a side benefit, but with urbanization that began to change: city-dwellers had less and less need for their dogs and cats to do functional chores about the house, but we kept them around anyway. No longer useful in the traditional sense, dogs and cats became simply part of the family, and we started to ask not what pets could do for us, but what we could do for them.

These attitudes were all well and good in peacetime, but during World War I a significant portion of the British populace bristled at the thought of pets getting better treatment than some humans. The Times of London ran images from the Lambeth Cat Show of 1916, showing pampered pets on silk pillows, noting that “all the cats were sleek and groomed. Several were fat.” This last comment no doubt stung at a time when many were going hungry, and the prevailing opinion, particularly among the middle and lower classes, seemed to be that pets were decadent luxury items competing with human beings for food. While cat advocates still insisted that they were useful for pest control, in the eyes of many they’d become useless freeloaders. In 1915, the Times had opined that “when every penny is wanted for the Empire it is not time to maunder over cats.”

In many ways, it was the memory of World War I that determined the fate of animals in World War II. Many remembered feral cats and starving dogs wandering the streets of London, abandoned or orphaned, left to suffer in calamity’s deprivations. Once it became clear that war was inevitable, the British government set out to get ahead of this catastrophe, and began making provisions for the country’s animals. In August 1939, existing animal welfare organizations were gathered under an umbrella government program, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals’ Committee (NARPAC), tasked with coming up for a plan to protect British animals during the imminent bombing campaign. Specific provisions were made for livestock and other animals deemed to have economic interest. Pets, however, were left out of these considerations. While NARPAC never advocated the destruction of pets, it made no public provisions for them, while providing instruction and assistance for the moving of horses and other utilitarian animals out to the countryside. The government’s “failure to acknowledge in timely fashion the presence of dogs, cats, budgerigars [Australian parakeets, subject of a major pet craze in the 1920’s and 30’s], and other companion animals would have severe repercussions for such animals,” Kean writes. “Although the state was not directly responsible for the decision of people to kill their pets, its lack of action made it easier for a positive animal-human relationship to be so drastically broken in September 1939.”