"Evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the cat."
October 12, 2013 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Advice to UK animal owners just before World War Two broke out: "If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency." It concluded: "If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed."

BBC: "As many as 750,000 British pets were killed in just one week."

Dr Hilda Kean: In London, at the start of war in September 1939, more than 400,000 cats and dogs died at their owner’s behest in just four days: more than six times the number of civilian deaths throughout the entire country during the whole of the Second World War.

History House: Many believed that the Government had issued instructions for their destruction to take place. This, however, was a rumour. The Times of the 7th September carried a report denying such an instruction and urged owners not to destroy their animals unless they were going away or being evacuated.

RSPCA: "Half of London's pets must have been wiped out and people will regret it soon."
posted by Wordshore (22 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have such mixed feelings about this. Many animals would have been doomed to a life of hunger and suffering during the war had they not been put down, but it seems terrible to not even give them the chance.
posted by wierdo at 1:06 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Caskeum at 1:34 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Food rationing only ended in the UK in 1954. That cull was not irrational in the least.
posted by srboisvert at 1:36 PM on October 12, 2013 [19 favorites]

I dunno, I think cats could be really useful during a war, they'd help keep the mice and rats at bay in a time when houses were damaged and stored food was extra valuable.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:44 PM on October 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

This was mentioned on Wartime Farm- when the war started, most herds of sheep were slaughtered to free up land for food production. With them, many sheepdogs (no longer having a job to do, but still requiring food) would also have been put down.

Of course, the show then proceeds to have their adorable sheepdog, Henry, feature in nearly every other scene for the rest of the series.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:45 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

No matter what the urban disaster, I think the cat would outlast me...
posted by welovelife at 1:52 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by scratch at 1:59 PM on October 12, 2013

To put this in some perspective at the time there would have been somewhere in the region of 6 million cats and dogs (stats), so this is "As many as 12%"
The number of UK people killed in WW2 is put at 450,000 (civilian + military) so it is possible that more animals died than people.
posted by Lanark at 2:11 PM on October 12, 2013

Yeah, you know, WW II was a really big hard deal in Britain. Some stuff happened that was even more distressing than killing pets.

Excuse my sarcasm. This was, of course, a bad thing. It's just that I've seen this doing the rounds lately and I've seen it treated like a big shocking thing, and it makes me realise all over again how what our parents lived becomes just another gee-wow story for later generations.
posted by Decani at 2:13 PM on October 12, 2013 [15 favorites]

I think the other thing to remember is that this happened just before the 'phoney war' stage of the war, where (as far as the UK was concerned) very little happened for a few months. For example, at the outbreak of war my great-aunt was mobilised to a military hospital and did nothing but fold bandages in an empty hospital for two months before she managed to get transferred to somewhere which actually had patients. So it wasn't like people had their cats and dogs put down and then the Blitz happened - they made preparations for war, which included killing beloved pets and then... nothing. There was ample time to regret the loss of a pet, before bigger losses overshadowed it.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:27 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Excuse my sarcasm. This was, of course, a bad thing. It's just that I've seen this doing the rounds lately and I've seen it treated like a big shocking thing,

The full scope of the situation is hard to grasp in anything more than an abstact way, generations away from it. I think the point is that connectlng to a very concrete piece of something huge - which we understand is only a small piece - can help form a perspective on the whole.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:16 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

London was actually pretty good to their pets with a humane death. In other places, they had to eat them.

In Leningrad, they ate rats, cats, dogs, sawdust, wallpaper paste–anything they could try to digest.

...Paris had been broken by a long Prussian siege, its starving citizens reduced to eating dogs, cats, and rats...

Living conditions in the Jewish ghettos doesn't even bear thinking about.

Stuff happened in the US, too. Most pets didn't fare to badly, but zoo animals took a hit. Meat rationing as a result of World War II occurred also in 1941, which put away meat-eating animals in Zoo Boise.

Yeah, you know, WW II was a really big hard deal in Britain. Some stuff happened that was even more distressing than killing pets.

Nasty, ugly shit happens during a war.

It's a good thing to keep Fido fat. He's much tastier than shoe leather.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:19 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh no! Dogs died in WW2?
posted by 256 at 7:22 PM on October 12, 2013

I think it's worth knowing that so many families killed their pets, if for no other reason than to recognise that our fears cause us to make precipitate and cruel decisions. The fact that worse things happened later (and were already going on in Europe) does not eliminate the fact that something bad happened, which should be remembered.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:02 AM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

But this isn't really a bad thing that happened though. That the world became so mad with war that Britain required food rationing for two decades is a bad thing. That so many individual British people were so forward thinking and generous as to collectively so value the food security of their community that they each were willing to sacrifice their pets for the well being of their neighbors is inspiring.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:46 AM on October 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

But this isn't really a bad thing that happened though.

Finally something good we can credit Hitler with!

posted by XMLicious at 4:12 AM on October 13, 2013

The killings took place long before an attack on Britain, and pet food was never rationed (although it would undoubtedly have been more expensive and harder to get). I think it's clear that many of the killings were unnecessary, and they were certainly precipitate. In any event, for me the significant thing is the speed with which the British public adopted this as a norm.

This support for pet-killing sheds some light on what was happening overseas at that time: in England they killed dogs; in the USA they rounded up people with Japanese ancestry; in Europe they shipped Jews off to their death in cattle cars. This shows us how potent fear and patriotism can be: at a time of crisis, things that were formerly unthinkable can quickly appear laudable, or even (which is worse) natural.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:45 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Two quick points :

When rationing was introduced, many working people's diets actually got better. For the first time they were given a fair slice of the pie (literally).

Second, we in the UK think of ourselves as animal lovers but when you consider we are currently slaughtering badgers on the off-chance it might assist the beef industry, I think the truth is that we just love our pets. That is is why this story is worth reporting.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 4:56 AM on October 13, 2013

We rounded up people with German, Italian and Austrian ancestry, so we're not exactly innocent in that regard.

I think this is worth reporting, because in the UK we're so used hearing about 'Blitz spirit', that we rolled up our sleeves and did what we had to do. But that included killing Fido - and we did that because the government told us to. How much of that 'spirit' was free choice and what else would we have been willing to do if the government had told us to?
posted by Helga-woo at 5:11 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

One wonders how much of this was the patriotic spirit, and how much animal-hating dad (or mom) finally having an angle with which to get rid of that spoiled fuzzball under the dinner table...
posted by Scram at 9:31 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

The British(and other nations, of course) suffered a number of privations during WWII. It must have been terribly sad for a lot of people to have pets euthanized, and not to have their companions during such difficult times. Interesting story.

I know people who grew in post-war England and France. The lack of nutrition was significant well after V-E Day.
posted by theora55 at 11:10 AM on October 13, 2013

Pet food rationing wasn't a thing back then because the idea of food prepared especially for pets is an anachronistically recent and inaccessibly bourgeois phenomena. Pets for all but the rich used to be fed off of the scraps of what people didn't eat, or sometimes in the cities horse meat and 'biscuits' from carts, and when those scraps became precious through desperate rationing the choice of starving children to keep a luxury alive became a deeply disgusting and selfish one. A choice made simpler by the use of horse meat to supplement diets, a law declaring it illegal to feed human food to animals and the lack of any ration of food for pets. That so many people valued the food security of their neighbors over their animals in what was obvious to everyone with half a brain would very shortly be a long, desperate, vicious, and uncertain war is a beautiful example of the kind of love that even a community of people as large as the UK can still have for each other when choices stop being easy.

Also its maybe not such a great thing to make such direct comparisons between Jews in Europe or Japanese in America and dogs, especially in this context.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:28 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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