I used to be a voracious reader – mainly non-fiction - but then technology entered my life and now these days all my “reading” is usually done online. That is, until I was recently given a copy of “Bonzo's War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945” by Clare Campbell, with Christy Campbell, by a friend. Never heard this story before. Maybe you haven't either. Fascinating. Couldn't put it down.
First published in 2013, “Bonzo's War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945” is a fascinating and well-researched book on the effect of war on Britain's animal population during the Second World War. It also tells the story of the hysteria that led to the voluntary euthanasia of as many as 750,000 pets in one week – the animals killed by their loving owners, not a despotic government and for no valid reason.
In the summer of 1939, The National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee” (NARPAC) was formed and they wrote a pamphlet called “Advice to Animal Owners”. In the pamphlet they advised pet owners to take their pets to the countryside in case of an emergency. If the owners could not do so, or could not find neighbours to care for the family pet, it would be “kindest to have them destroyed”, the BBC reported. This was basically persuading the public that euthanising the family pet was both patriotic and humane, resulting in more food rations for humans. Food which was fit for human consumption was not permitted to be fed to animals, putting more pressure on owners.
Besides the pamphlets, the advice was posted in many local newspapers and was broadcast on the BBC. Clare Campbell wrote that it was “...a national tragedy in the making.”
War was declared on September 3, 1939. Thousands of pets were brought to veterinary clinics and animal homes.
According to historian, Hilda Kean: “Animal charities like RSPCA and the PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) and vets were all opposed to the killing of pets and were very concerned about people just dumping animals on their doorsteps at the start of the war.”
The government sent out agents to watch animal rights activists, sponsored a clandestine anti-dog hate campaign and even made 'giving your cat a saucer of milk' a criminal offence.
Pets weren't offered shelter either. Panic-stricken people flocked to vets requesting healthy pets were put down.
The fear of wide-spread and extremely destructive bombing raids and gas attacks immediately after the declaration of war was very prevalent in the population, and what would happen to their pets during the raids was very much at the forefront of their owners' minds. Britons were advised that euthanizing their pets would save their pets from a horrible death brought on by the German aerial onslaught. And, that if their pets did survive the onslaught, they would just starve to death anyway. Amazingly, the BBC actively promoted this view. Other animal protection charities jumped on the patriotic bandwagon and garnered increased funding for the “humane” destruction of healthy animals.
While many people panicked, others tried to restore calm. “Putting your pets to sleep is a very tragic decision. Do not take it before it is absolutely necessary,” urged Susan Day in the “Daily Mirror”.
But the government pamphlet had sowed a powerful seed
“People were basically told to kill their pets and they did. They killed 750,000 of them in the space of a week – it was a real tragedy, a complete disaster,” says Christy Campbell, who helped write Bonzo's War.
Historian Hilda Kean says that it was just another way of signifying that war had begun. “it was one of the things people had to do when the news came – evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the cat.”
“People were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the 'luxury' of a pet during wartime,” explains Pip Dodd, senior curator at the National Army Museum. “The Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the RSPCA tried to stop this, particularly as dogs were needed for the war effort.”
Alison Feeney-Hart, @BBCNewsMagazine “Ultimately, given the unimaginable human suffering that followed over the six years of war , it is perhaps understandable that the extraordinary culls of pets is not better known”.
Kean says: “It isn't well known that so many pets were killed because it isn't a nice story, it doesn't fit with this notion of us as a nation of animal lovers. People don't like to remember that at the first sign of war we went out to kill the pussycat,” she says.
“Bonzo's War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945” by Clare Campbell with Christy Campbell is available at www.amazon.com Great book. Highly recommended. Worth a read.
- Published: 07 April 2015
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