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The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown Tragedy


Hilda Kean


Animal Lives Series

Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press

Hardcover. vi+233 p. ISBN 978-0226318325. $35


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London




This remarkable book begins with a shocking event: the killing of at least 400,000 pet cats and dogs in London during four days of the first week of World War II. This number represented about a quarter of the combined feline and canine population in the capital. Accounts appeared in many British newspapers, but the massacre has been long forgotten and erased from the popular memory. In September 1939, there was no panic among humans in London and no bomb fell on the city until the following spring. There was no State initiative to deal with animals in the event of war, priority being given to human beings, but an advisory board was set up in August 1939. Known as the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC), it involved representatives of animal welfare organisations, veterinarians, and police. It sought to ‘conserve animals of economic value – alive or dead; provide and protect food supplies for essential animals (transport and farm animals); protect human beings from panic-stricken or gas-contaminated animals; and prevent and alleviate animal suffering’ [44]. It was thought that its main role would be to ‘salvage animals, badly injured as a result of enemy action, as meat fit for human consumption in a regulated way, thus preventing black market profiteering’ [44]. At the end of August 1939, NARPAC suggested that animals should be evacuated to the country in advance of enemy attack, but this rarely happened.

The ‘great cat and dog massacre’ was not the result of government directive but rather was the outworking of a popular feeling that domestic animals would be unable to tolerate the impact of bombing and would become crazed. A secondary sentiment was that food supplies would become scarce and should be reserved for humans. Whatever the logic, thousands of families of Londoners sacrificed the pets they had previously cared for. Queues formed outside the premises of animal welfare organisations where animals were ‘put to sleep’; sometimes householders took matters into their own hands, with drowning and battering of pets proliferating. In addition, animals ‘kept as a source of spectacle and education in zoological gardens were often destroyed’ [63]. By contrast, horses fared better by virtue of their role in transporting goods. Hilda Kean rightly argues that this animal massacre ‘is not part of the popular memory of the “Good War”, the unified “People’s War”, and has been ignored in scholarly accounts of wartime’ [4]. The shocking events of September 1939 were indeed ‘the complete antithesis of the promoted spirit of steadfastness and resilience’ [5]. The author insists that awareness of ‘animal presence and activity – and of how humans engaged with this, can challenge and disrupt our somewhat lazy assumptions about the war’ [5]. She argues that throughout the hostilities, cats, dogs, birds and other animals were seen as ‘symbols of fidelity, stability and civilisation’ [7]. The war ‘was not experienced only by humans: animals were an integral part of the domestic parameters of warfare. They not only suffered (as did humans) but also actively played a role in their own and in their human companions’ physical and emotional survival’ [6].

Drawing on an impressive array of official and especially unofficial source material, embracing diaries, letters and family stories, Hilda Kean sets the mass killing of September 1939 in its context by displaying the British as a nation of animal lovers, at least in peacetime. Some domestic animals were bred for their appearance and intelligence and were greatly valued as companions. Others were fed for the services they rendered, with cats keeping down the mouse population and dogs guarding premises and protecting their owners. Perhaps many Londoners believed that an early death was a blessed release for their pets in time of imminent war. In being cruel, they were also seeking to be kind. To further enhance her captivating text, the author includes an array of very striking animal photographs taken in wartime, most of these being deposited in the archives of the Bishopsgate Institute. It is the cats, dogs, tame birds and other animal survivors who – and the personal pronoun is always employed by Dr Kean – are the real heroes and heroines of this story. Among countless fascinating vignettes, there is an account of numerous stray dogs being smuggled by British servicemen from Dunkirk in May 1940, contrary to orders that only humans should be rescued in the boats, both little and large, that traversed the Channel. Indeed, ‘many soldiers were keen to repatriate dogs who had followed them through France dogs who had often been abandoned by the fleeing French or had left the Nazis’ [81].

Despite regulations to exclude animals from communal bomb shelters, wardens sometimes turned a blind eye and allowed them in. Like their owners, dogs and cats suffered from stress during raids. Remarkable sedatives were prepared to administer to pets, and curious head coverings were devised to protect dogs from the sound of explosives; it was acknowledged that cats would not tolerate such bizarre head gear. By virtue of their acute sense of hearing, cats and dogs were often the first to know that shells were about to fall and rushed to hide or clamoured to be let out, seconds before their owners appreciated the imminence of destruction. Numbered identity disks for domestic animals were issued by NARPAC, whose members listed them in registers so that pets that had gone missing might be reunited with their owners. Some air raid wardens, but by no means all, made a point of searching for lost or buried domestic animals. As the Mayor of Stepney declared: ‘It needs as much – perhaps more – pluck to wander among blazing and tottering ruins, looking for a maddened dog or trying to pick up a crazed cat, as to go to try to help sensible humans’ [16]. In such a spirit, efforts were also made to put down badly injured animals humanely, but that was not always the case.

Perhaps more than in peacetime, humans looked to domestic animals for companionship and support during the war. Hilda Kean maintains that there was emotional reciprocity between pets and owners. As well as being a source of comfort, some dogs were also important for human survival, having been trained to search for people buried beneath rubble. But once peace was restored, the role of animals in boosting human morale tended to be forgotten; very few memorials to animals were installed. For many Londoners, their pets were ‘again just disposable things’ [163]. The message of this fascinating and provocative book may be found in its author’s concluding words:

The physical conditions of total war – restricted food, enforced sheltering from bombs, potential and actual homelessness – and its mental / emotional states, including anxiety, stress and trauma, were characteristic of a particular type of warfare. In that moment, there started to grow cross-species relationships that benefitted both humans and animals. These were exceptional times. Rather than choosing to forget the varying treatment humans meted out to animals in the war, we might choose to remember these times in different ways and to create new histories of the animal-human war as a reminder of the past and as a possible guide for future living [169].

Without doubt, Hilda Kean has written an original and challenging monograph whose message forces readers to rethink their attitudes about themselves and the animals around them. On a personal note, I was born in the final months of the war and therefore have no direct memories of it, but I do recall that my father kept chickens and rabbits in our suburban garden in north London to make weekend meals more nourishing during the long period of food rationing. I vividly remember the smell of bran and potato peelings being cooked together to feed to the rabbits, and I also recall helping my mother to pick grass, dandelions and other ‘weeds’ to give to them. All the chickens and rabbits ended up in the oven, save one large and much loved black rabbit who was allowed to die a natural death and was buried in the back garden. Another cherished memory from that time involves cans of food sent from friends of the family in the United States; even now I eat peach slices and corned beef with grateful thanks.


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