A rather morbid topic today, however one that struck me as a pet owner and shows the desperation of families and pet owners during the Second World War.
At the outbreak of war, naturally, Britain was in a state of shock and hysteria; the uncertainty of another major European conflict hung over the heads of the British public like an haze of ill fortune. The scars and social devastation of the First World War were still evident throughout British, and indeed, European societies.
In today’s society we value the role that pets can have in healing the emotional scars of veterans and people with mental health issues. We have organisations dedicated to touring our university campuses with dogs who help students stressed with exams, guide dogs dedicate their lives to assisting their blind owners and others help calm veterans with PTSD.
A world without pets would seem empty and void to many, myself included as a proud owner of a Springer Spaniel – to lose a pet is a great agony, but to put one down out of necessity during war-time must have been horrible.
With rationing becoming a reality of life in wartime Britain, many may have considered how they would feed their families and pondered the struggles ahead. For pet owners, however, the reality struck especially deep in their hearts.
If rationing was intended to limit the amount of food expenditure among the British population, then how can you feed a pet? Whether it be a dog, a cat or any other household animal, the sad reality is that sacrifices would have to be made.
In 1939, some 750,000 household pets were put down in the United Kingdom in a wave of euthanization that would become known as the British Pet Massacre.
The name itself is rather dark, and suggests a frenzied free-for-all in which British pet owners mercilessly killed their beloved animals. In reality, this process was advised by the government in the run up to war as a last option for pet owners. Thousands of households across the UK were sent informational leaflets, providing advice on how best to deal with the reality of keeping a pet during a national food shortage.
In 1939, the British Government formed NARPAC, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee in an attempt to solve the issue of what to do with pets during wartime.
Worried that pet owners would split rations or use their own to feed their pets, the committee advised that moving pets from cities in to rural areas was a viable option for owners – Similar to parents sending their children to the countryside, pet owners would whisk their beloved furry friends to the idyllic green pastures of the British country.
For many however this was not an option, and heartbreaking decisions would have to be made in the interest of self-preservation and the very future of the nation.
A Wave of Euthenisia
If relocation was not possible, then pet owners were recommended to do the unthinkable; euthanize their pets. The mindset was that it was humane to ‘destroy’ the animals rather than put them through the trauma of aerial bombings, or ultimately, an invasion by Nazi forces.
In a macabre twist included in these pamphlets, bolt guns were advertised as a humane method to dispose of animals at home.
Many owners flocked to pet surgeries to have their animals put down after the declaration of war in September 1939, and after the initial Luftwaffe bombings in London, the hysteria set in; a wave of owners across the UK sought to have their pets put down.
It is said that throughout the wave of this hysteria, the National Canine Defence League (Now the Dogs Trust) ran out of chloroform, such was the extent of the killing.
Other organisations could not keep up with demand – The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals could not cope with the sheer volume of animal corpses so they had to open a new cemetery, with this charity in particular claiming some 500,000 animals were put down during the initial wave of hysteria.
Zoo animals weren’t exempt from the slaughter, either. Polar bears in Bristol zoo were killed and lions at Southend zoo were also killed. Even animals such as fish or snakes at various zoos across Britain were not spared.
Saving Britain’s Pets
There was widespread opposition to this process across the United Kingdom, particularly from veterinarians, cat & dog homes and even members of the aristocracy.
The RSPCA were against such reactionary measures and the level of slaughter, however their centres were inundated with helpless pet owners seeking to put their friends down.
Against all odds, the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home managed to care for and feed over 145,000 dogs during the course of the conflict. Truly a remarkable feat and one that saved the lives of thousands of animals caught up in a situation they could not possibly comprehend.
The Duchess of Hamilton received enormous praise both at the time, and even today, for her actions in defending pets throughout the war. As an avid cat-lover, she campaigned fiercely against the mass killing and even created a sanctuary for pets from all four corners of Britain – the Ferne Animal Sanctuary exists to this very day.
This event is a dark and devastating glimpse into the mindset of the British public at the time; panic and despair with a dash of helplessness. Ultimately, many measures had to be taken to preserve the nation throughout this time in British history, and pets were sadly a luxury that many people could not afford when one considers rationing and the widespread devastation of British towns and cities.