Panicked Britons put down three quarters of a million pets in the first week of World War II, even though animal shelters advised people not to be too hasty to euthanize Fluffy and Fido.
It was the government that played a pivotal role in the loss of beloved four-legged friends, according to Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945, which delves into the grim and forgotten episode of history.
A government air raid pamphlet warned animal owners: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency. … (But) if you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.”
On Sept. 1, 1939 as Nazi forces invaded Poland, BBC radio told British listeners that they would not be able to bring their pets to air raid shelters.
A vet in East London recalled the day: ‘The sirens sounded … and almost immediately West Ham Town Hall became besieged by panic-stricken people bringing their animals for destruction.”
“People were basically told to kill their pets and they did,” says Bonzo’s author Christy Campbell. “They killed 750,000 of them in the space of a week — it was a real tragedy, a complete disaster.”
Historian Hilda Kean tells the BBC: “It was one of things people had to do when the news came — evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the cat.”
In Memoriam notices were placed in papers. “Happy memories of Iola, sweet faithful friend, given sleep September 4th, 1939, to be saved suffering during the war. … Forgive us little pal,” said one, according to the BBC.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home was among many shelters telling people not to take such awful measures. With only four staff, the Battersea shelter alone looked after 145,000 dogs during the war.
Many pet lovers did keep their cats and dogs. Some humans even stayed home with their animals instead of seeking the safety of public air raid shelters. But if the family dog survived the Blitz, what to feed him soon became the problem.
“In August 1940, the Waste Of Food Order was passed, making it an offence, punishable by two years’ imprisonment, to feed animals with food fit for human consumption,” Campbell writes.
You can read an excerpt of Campbell’s book in the Daily Mail.