Britain’s secret WW2 pet massacre

In 1939, the British government formed the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) to decide what would happen to the many pets living in the country’s cities in the event of an air raid. The NARPAC’s main concern was that pets would use up valuable meat and other food supplies which were rationed. The committee’s first idea was that all animals would be moved into the countryside, however that came with the sinister instruction that “if you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed”. Quite conveniently, on the reverse of the NARPAC leaflet featured an advert for a captive bolt pistol, that could be used to ‘humanely’ “destroy” your pet.

Even at the time the NARPAC faced a strong resistance from groups including the Battersea Dogs’ and Cats’ Home, which fed and housed over 145,000 dogs during the course of the war; royalty was also against the idea, in the form of the Duchess of Hamilton. As a cat-lover and owner, the duchess campaigned against the idea of killing pets and even created her own cat sanctuary in a heated hanger at Ferne House in Wiltshire. Veterinarian groups such as the RSPCA and PDSA were also against the measures – however should the call of war arise it would be their surgeons who would be required to euthanise a great number of animals.

When war was officially declared thousands rushed to the surgeries of the PDSA and RSPCA, with waiting rooms described as “flooded”. At the PDSA founder Maria Dickin said of the events “our technical officers called upon to perform this unhappy duty will never forget the tragedy of those days”. Yet more pets were brought to the vets for euthanasia in 1940 after London suffered the blitz, Pip Dodd, curator at National Army Museum, explained the mass killings by saying “people were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the ‘luxury’ of a pet during wartime”.

Estimates say over 750,000 pets died as a result of the wartime euthanasia and it is said that many owners who took the decision to have their pet killed regretted it after getting over fears of bombings and food shortages. They also blamed the government for drumming up fear and creating the hysteria. Some of the country’s newspapers had attempted to stop people making the decision hastily, with Susan Day writing in the Sunday Mirror: “putting your pets to sleep is a very tragic decision. Do not take it before it is absolutely necessary.”

Until recently the massacre had received very little attention, however over the last year it has started to become a ‘hot topic’ among those researching WW2. A new book, named The Great Cat and Dog Massacre by Hilda Kean, was released last year detailing the massacre and this has now lead to a fundraising campaign to fund a proper memorial much like the one in Hyde Park dedicated to the working animals of the war.

This feature first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Pet Gazette

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