Category: Weird Articles
Published on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 00:00
We have released quite a number of articles of little known, mind-blowing World War II facts, but none is more tragic than this true story that has remained relatively obscure for a very long time. At the beginning of WWII, a government pamphlet instructed the culling of British pets which, in just one week, led to the death of over 750,000 domestic animals.
It was the summer of 1939 and war was on everyone's minds. The war had not broken out yet but people knew that it was imminent, and they were afraid. The extensive cull came as the result of a public information campaign by the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) that caused an extraordinary reaction among anxious Britons. NARPAC drafted a notice – Advice to Animal Owners.
The pamphlet read: “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 neighbors, 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”, says Clare Campbell, author of new book Bonzo's War: Animals Under Fire 1939 -1945.
Campbell 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, British pet owners flocked to vets' surgeries and animal homes either to put them down or abandon them.
"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," says historian Hilda Kean.
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."
Other animal homes did not share the same opinion as Battersea did though. Campbell cites an Arthur Moss of the RSPCA who “gloomily pronounced that the primary task for them all would be the destruction of animals”.
Just into the first few days of war, PDSA hospitals and dispensaries were already overwhelmed by the deluge of owners bringing their pets in to be destroyed. PDSA founder Maria Dickin reported: “Our technical officers called upon to perform this unhappy duty will never forget the tragedy of those days.”
Obituaries of beloved pets started appearing in the press. One in Tail-Wagger Magazine read: “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.”
Following the first bombing of London in September 1940 saw the tremendous increase of pet owners rushing to have their pets destroyed.
There was panic in the streets and people seemed to think that destroying their pets would somehow make things a lot better despite the more rational people advising against it. “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.
Anxious Britons paid no heed to persuasions of them keeping their pets because the government's advice had sowed a powerful and stubborn 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," says Christy Campbell, who helped write Bonzo's War.
Historian Hilda Kean says that it was just another way of signifying that war had begun. "It was one of things people had to do when the news came - evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the cat."
It was the shortage of food that posed the biggest problem to keeping pets. Food was already scarce as it was for the family, and there was no food ration for dogs and cats.
While many pet-owners callously destroyed their pets in a moment of selfishness, there were many other animal-lovers who found a way to get by and still care for their furkids. 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”.
And even though there were just four staff at Battersea, the home managed to feed and care for 145,000 dogs during the course of the war.
In the middle of the pet-culling mayhem, some people tried desperately to intervene. The Duchess of Hamilton – a wealthy 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," says historian Kean. 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 apologized to the neighbors who complained about the barking.
But with war and all the uncertainties and insecurities that come along with it, many pet-owners had the worst-case scenario in their heads.
“People were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the 'luxury' of a pet during wartime,” explains Pip Dodd, senior curator at the National Army Museum.
"The Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the RSPCA tried to stop this, particularly as dogs were needed for the war effort."
Kean reckons that this tragedy is not more widely known because it is a difficult story to tell.
While the Brits had the ability and resources to fight against an opposing force that threatens their very livelihood, the exorbitant number of pets that were destroyed by the very people they loved wholeheartedly did not even stand a fighting chance. Over 60 million people were killed (2.5% of the world population) in WWII. Was it really necessary to add innocent animals' lives to the death-toll as well?