Monday, May 1, 2017

The Pets’ War

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 state-enforced distinction between useful animals and animals that were seen as merely luxury goods provides one plausible explanation for the pet massacre of 1939. But this turns out to be only half of the story. Pets may have been less economically valuable than livestock, but their lives were valued more highly, and in a strange way the strong feeling that Londoners felt for their dogs and cats sealed those animals’ doom. To kill an animal rather than to let it starve was seen an act of mercy and compassion. One man euthanized his beloved cat Lulu, commenting that it was impossible to take Lulu with him out of the city, and that he could not bear to “think of him in other hands or exposed to the risks of war.” Numerous stories from the time from families who had their pets put down reflect a desire to protect them from the horrors and cruelty of what was surely to come.

Pets were like members of the family, and it is here that the real truth of the matter may emerge. In the run-up to the war, many parents spoke candidly of how they would poison their own children rather than force them to live under German occupation. “I have been collecting poisons for some time with guile and cunning,” one housewife reported to the social research project Mass-Observation. “I have sufficient to give self, husband and all the children a lethal dose. I can remember the last war. I don’t want to live through another, or the children either. I shan’t tell them, I shall just do it.” Her sentiment was echoed by numerous others in Britain that summer before the war. “I’d rather see my two boys dead,” a 45-year-old father said. “I’d poison them if I thought it was coming.”

When war came, however, no mass murders of children took place. Instead, it appears, many people sublimated this impulse toward mercy killing by exercising it on their animals instead. The mass poisoning of children, however charitably intentioned, would have heralded a breakdown in human civilization the likes of which British may not have recovered from. Not so with the euthanizing of pets, which could be justified as both an economic sacrifice in hard times and a way of sparing a beloved creature unnecessary suffering.

by Colin Dickey, LARB | Read more:
Image: The Great Cat and Dog Massacre