England’s (almost) forgotten pet massacre of 1939
In the first week of September, 1939, London’s animal shelters were overflowing with guests. The queues of people and their pets meandered down the streets in a typically British manner, calm, dignified and orderly. However, the owners of dogs, cats, rabbits and even parrots and other birds who were waiting to visit vets and animal charities were harbouring a terrible secret.
All pet-owners were waiting to euthanize their pets, even if none of the animals were dying, and none of them were even sick. The distraught Londoners had brought them to do what they thought was the most humane and right thing: spare their pets from the atrocities (and food shortages) of the imminent world war.
No bombs had fallen, no invasion was imminent, but thousands of families from every walk of life had decided within hours of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Nazi Germany that they should put down their animals. In the week that the press condemned the brutality of the German ambassador for abandoning his dog as he fled the country, a darker crime against animals was being committed on the streets of Britain.
The British Pet Massacre of 1939 was something horrible, twist in the narrative often told about the “People’s War.” In fact, animal cruelty was often used to embody the cruelest reaches of fascism, and one piece in the Daily Mirror ridiculed the same German ambassador for abandoning his dog when fleeing the embassy, stating “that’s what Britain is fighting—the inherent brutality of Nazism, that has no justice or human feeling—even for its pets.”
Instead, England championed its brave-hearted war heroes. At the Ilford Pet Cemetery, there are headstones commemorating World War II animals such as Simon, the beloved cat who received the Blue Cross and the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) Dickin Medal for his Naval service. But, buried alongside these celebrated heroes, are thousands of pets who were killed before a single bomb had been dropped. “The PDSA grounds might well be defined as a site of memory,” historian Hilda Kean writes, “only certain, individual, animals, whose exploits are narrativised to fit within the notion of a ‘good’ war are actually remembered.” And until recently, that darker history has remained, largely, underground.
The National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) had estimated that England was then home to six to seven million dogs and cats, 56 million poultry, and more than 37 million farm animals: about twice as many domestic animals as there were people in the country. War not only meant the potential for air raids on the homeland, but also for rationing and major food shortages. In anticipation of wartime conditions and sparse resources, NARPAC issued an advisory pamphlet to animal owners encouraging them to send their animals to the countryside. But if the animals couldn’t be placed into someone else’s care? The pamphlet suggested it would be “kindest to have them destroyed.”
So when, on September 3, 1939, Neville Chamberlain publicly announced that Britain would be going to war, thousands of Londoners marched dutifully to their local clinic to do what they thought was right. Veterinarians worked overtime to meet the demand. A 1939 report of the mass euthanasia in Animal World later recounted that “the work of destroying animals was continued, day and night.”
However, this hadn’t been NARPAC’s intention because they had given specific instructions for agricultural animals, but had omitted any provisions for domestic pets. In fact, in the following weeks, they issued a notice stating “those who are staying at home should not have their animals destroyed.”
Radio disc jockeys even joined the campaign, with popular Christopher Stone telling listeners: “To destroy a faithful friend when there is no need to do so is yet another way of letting war creep into your home.”
But, of course, it was too late and The National Canine Defence League (NCDL) ran out of chloroform so extensive was the slaughter. At a time before the horrors of the Nazi gas chambers were known, the charity described the killings as the “September Holocaust”.
But perhaps what’s most shocking about this unprecedented mass action was that none of it was done out of any real necessity. Rather the owners took the fateful decision to have their pets euthanised because they believed they were doing the best by their animals.
In fact, the role and perception of pets had changed in the decades leading up to World War II. For example, by 1930, dogs were required by law to be collared, and expected to be trained and leashed. Moreover, those who had lived through World War I knew what a war-torn country looked like, and they never wanted to live in such conditions again.
According to Express.co.uk, the owner of 11-year-old Lulu, a black and white Persian cat, put an obituary to his companion in the newsletter of the Cats Protection League. He had been posted abroad and as it was impossible to take Lulu or “to think of him in other hands or exposed to the risks of war” he had her destroyed. He said it left him with “a sense of loss and grief deeper than words can tell”.
Betty Morrell from Hastings described in her memoir how her mother had had the family cat killed “because she remembered the bombing of the First World War and didn’t want to think about the cat wandering around about homeless and scared”.
Others were concerned about being able to feed their pets if rationing came in or how animals would cope with bombing. Some of the killing was done not by vets but by owners themselves or their friends.
Paul Plumley remembered the death of his family dog. “At the outbreak of war I was five and my mother told me to take our young Welsh collie to the vets to be put to sleep. It was quite a long walk for a five year old. Not that I thought too much about that at the time.”
One of the mysteries of the massacre was why so many of the population who cared for animals made such an immediate and drastic decision to kill their pets.
Probably as pets became increasingly integrated into families, it became harder for owners to envision them abandoned once the war started. Many who had lived through World War I stocked up on poison, claiming also they’d rather see their children dead than put them through wartime conditions. And perhaps this was enacted, instead, on their animals.
In the end, many of the surviving pets didn’t starve, but rather became even further loved bt their human families. While there was no official ration for pets, human meals were shared and of course, scraps of meat would be gave to the pet.
Understanding the pet massacre, perhaps, requires a deep dive into the collective psyche of a nation on the brink of war. But in some ways, the Ilford Cemetery makes clear the collective amnesia that many post-war nations tend to adopt, remembering the good, forgetting the atrocities, and forging a cleaner narrative, in order to carry on.