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The Great (Unknown) Pet Massacre

The title of this book almost begs incredulity.

The Great Cat & Dog Massacre?

When I first saw the book cover I struggled to imagine what the book was about exactly. One of the pictures features men in helmets carrying animals, so I initially assumed the massacre was the result of bombings.

But, no. This massacre — and it was indeed a massacre — was entirely self inflicted. 

During the earliest days of the war, British citizens killed their pets. Not because the government asked them to. Not because veterinarians asked them to. But because, for lack of a better word, they panicked.

It was September 1939. The bombing was still many months away. But, the people could not know this. They knew only that war was imminent, that bombs would eventually fall, that Germans could wash ashore at any moment. And many people thought it wiser to put their companion animals to death than risk the great unknown that awaited. And, given human nature, a stampede soon developed.

In less than a week approximately 400,000 cats and dogs, bunnies and birds were put to death. The run on shelters was so great that one shelter saw a line of people and their pets a half-mile long. Shelters ran out of chloroform and animals were buried in mass graves. Vets pleaded with people to rethink their decisions but a mania of sorts spread through communities rich and poor. In the end, roughly 26% of all London cats and dogs were put to death.

This book clearly illustrates how the widely accepted narrative of Brits keeping calm and carrying on was not all that it was cracked up to be.

Author Hilda Kean does a thorough job of collecting anecdotes, letters, news clippings that collectively shed light on the many experiences of pet owners, their children, vets, animal rescuers, politicians, and the animals themselves. Because this was not a phenomenon that was widely publicized and, after the war, was quickly forgotten, this book provides an important historical record.

I particularly appreciated the focus on the animals themselves — how their lives were so often an afterthought. How animals became just another element of the virtual war with the Germans, a war that was as much about “civilization” as anything else. At the time, the Germans were vilified for their poor treatment of animals, so it became incumbent upon the English to rise above. How should a civilized people treat its animal companions? This is a question that was debated then — and is still rightfully being debated today.

There are many sad stories in this book. Such as the accounts of children who lost their pets, often for reasons not at all made clear by their parents. And there are stories of parents who took a hands-on approach to killing their pets, which was equally traumatic on not only the children but, in some cases, the parents as well.

Now it is likely that a number of these animals would have died during the years of German bombings. More than 60,000 citizens died during that six-year span. But how much more difficult were those years for the people who so quickly sacrificed their companions? This was a tragedy during a time of so many tragedies. And this book does a service to those animals who gave their lives before their time.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (Animal Lives)