David Olusoga’s hidden histories: the massacre of Britain’s pets

"Half a million cats and dogs were put to death in 1939 – for no good reason," writes David Olusoga

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On the brink of the Second World War, one of the many challenges facing those in government and the civil service tasked with planning for the coming conflict was securing the nation’s supplies of food. When war came and the expected aerial bombardment of Britain’s cities commenced, could a nation of 47 million people, dependent upon imports, be kept fed?

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By the summer of 1939, with war against Germany seemingly inevitable, plans for food rationing were being developed. In August, the government’s National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee issued a pamphlet that was printed in national newspapers and broadcast on the BBC.

Concerned that pet owners would either share their scarce rations with their pets, leaving themselves underfed, or abandon their animals to starve, the committee offered official Advice to Animal Owners. That advice was that, where possible, pets be sent from the cities to the countryside. But, in what appeared almost a throwaway comment, it concluded that where this was not possible, “it really is kindest to have them destroyed”.

When war came in September, thousands of pet owners dutifully flocked to animal shelters to have their beloved pets euthanised. There were queues half a mile long; supplies of chloroform ran out. During the first days of the war, an estimated 400,000 to 750,000 dogs and cats were slaughtered in what the National Canine Defence League called, at the time, the “September Holocaust”.

In Memoriam notices appeared in the press. “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,” said one in Tail-Wagger magazine.

Why were pet owners so compliant? Some clearly feared food supplies would run out, while others felt the ‘luxury’ of owning a pet in wartime could not be justified and was therefore ‘unpatriotic’ – both sentiments that were reinforced by government propaganda. Others simply panicked.

Yet the tragic truth is that the pet massacre was unnecessary. At the time the government advised it, food was not yet scarce (rationing would not be introduced until January 1940) and the full force of the Blitz had yet to be felt.

Some pet owners later said they regretted their actions, partly because pets provided valuable companionship and, in the case of cats, vermin control. Criticism soon started to appear in the press. By November 1939, 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.”

Unsurprisingly, there were protests from animal welfare groups including the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), the RSPCA, and animal-lovers such as Nina Douglas-Hamilton, co-founder of the Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society, who created a pet sanctuary at Ferne House, her Wiltshire country home. Battersea Dogs Home (now called Battersea) also came to the rescue of more than 145,000 dogs.

Today, the Animals in War memorial at London’s Hyde Park pays tribute to the animals who served and died alongside British and Allied forces in various conflicts. Sadly there’s no memorial – yet – to the strangely forgotten, and shameful, massacre of Britain’s pets.

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This article was first published in the November 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine