The great cat and dog massacre The real story of World War Two's unknown tragedy

Hilda Kean

Book - 2017

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Animal lives (University of Chicago. Press)
Chicago : The University of Chicago Press 2017.
Physical Description
233 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 175-225) and index.
Main Author
Hilda Kean (author)
  • Introducing animals, historians, and the "people's war"
  • Being a pet in the 1920s and 1930s: a chronicle of a massacre foretold?
  • September 1939: no human panic. 400,000 animals killed in four days
  • Disrupting previous stories: a phony war for whom?
  • Building cross-species experience: eating and food in war
  • Blurring the boundaries: who is going to ground? who is protecting whom?
  • The growing strength of animal-human families and the wartime state
  • Emotion, utility, morale on the home front: animal-human relationships
  • Conclusion: change and continuity, remembering and forgetting
  • Animals during the Second World War.
Review by New York Times Review

ON SEPT. 3,1939, Neville Chamberlain announced on the BBC that Britain had declared war with Germany. In the week that followed, dutiful Britons returned library books, sewed blackout curtains - and had their pets euthanized. This puzzling national moment, which dispatched a quarter of England's pet population, is the titular event of Hilda Kean's "The Great Cat and Dog Massacre." Amid protests from government officials and animal charities, and despite the absence of any attack on British soil (the Blitz would not begin until 1940), an estimated 400,000 pets were killed in that first, silent week of war. So many Londoners chose to give their pets "the gift of sleep" that half-mile-long lines stretched around clinics, causing both a chloroform shortage and a waste management crisis. Though the massacre was publicly lamented at the time, Kean claims it has since been erased from memory. In fact, companion animals rarely appear at all in historical discussions of this, "the People's War." Using source material that includes advertisements, diaries, interviews, letters and editorials, Kean argues the massacre was not the result of a uniform domestic panic. She does point to the "black boredom" of the days after war was declared, and how mass euthanization was something citizens could do to prepare. But over all, Kean claims, perhaps too vaguely, that there was nothing "mass" about the thinking that led to this slew of pet deaths. Every decision to euthanize emerged from the context of a "particular prior existing relationship within a household." Equally specific relationships also led to each decision not to do away with the family cat or dog, a choice made for three-quarters of England's pet population. Kean says the singularity of these 400,000 decisions marks a key point in the history of Britons interacting with, and awarding agency to, animals. Kean then shifts to those spared pets, whose lives further intertwined with those of humans during the Blitz. Under rationing, the diets of pets and owners blended; cuts of the same horse or whale were rationed for all. A restricted diet prompted interspecies bargaining: Abone from the butcher meant for the dog might get rerouted to its owner's soup, or a cut of eel sold expressly for human consumption was sneaked into a cat's dish. In addition to food, "experiencing bombardment was clearly a joint humananimal activity." The corrugated iron shelters springing up in Londoners' yards were new spaces to be simultaneously negotiated. Some animals' airstrike anxieties kept humans from evacuating to larger public shelters; other humans felt their own fears assuaged by their furry compatriots. Kean makes these claims academically, arguing in the careful - even downright glacial - positing of a responsible historian. Still, her snapshots of life during wartime are engaging. In one chapter, a girl describes the sight of her dog's paws digging away the earth to retrieve her from a buried shelter. In another, a rescued parrot treats its liberator to a run of hilarious obscenities. One woman has her day in court after striking an air raid marshal who banished her pet monkey from a public shelter. Midcentury pet names litter (and light up) the book: Peckle, Chum, Tish and Tosh, Winston Churchill. We meet Marx, George Orwell's "subdued and uneasy" poodle, named for a philosopher Orwell had not yet read. Many illustrations Kean includes are also telling. One P.S.A. for makeshift earmuffs to be tied, like a toothache hankie, around a dog's head warns "few cats will tolerate anything of the kind." The care expressed in this ad, Kean says, springs not just from observing the suffering of pets, but also from an empathy for a fellow Blitzweary creature. "I know raids... drove many dogs mad," one interview subject notes. "The war's done the same thing to everything and everybody." Kean's book suggests that history should acknowledge "everybody" to include bodies with four legs as well as two. ? ELENA PASSARELLO is the author of "Animals Strike Curious Poses."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 16, 2017]