Animals have been used in wartime as long as humans have been fighting wars. They have also been innocent victims of war violence for just as long. For Britons during World War II, worry over pet suffering caused many animals to become victims of mercy killings. This little-known incident was one of the largest animal massacres in history.
In 1939, before the war actually started, people started to worry about what to do in case the UK was bombed. As a nation of animal lovers, people were concerned almost as much for their pets as they were for themselves. As fears began to grow, the National Air Raid Precautions Animal Committee (NARPAC) issued a pamphlet that gave pet owners some devastating advice.
The pamphlet urged pet owners to send their animals into the country as soon as possible. If they could not do so, NARPAC stated the best thing to do would be to humanely put them down. The brochure even provided do-it-yourself instructions for killing your pets.
It wasn’t until war on Germany was officially declared on September 3, 1939 that pet owners began acting on NARPAC’s advice en masse. Bomb shelters announced that they would not allow people to bring pets, and owners worried that their animals would needlessly suffer should the UK be attacked with gas or bombed.
Various animal charities were bombarded with requests to euthanize family pets. Although they at first resisted doing so, they worried that owners would simply abandon their pets due to the threat of a food shortage. No food rations were given to cats and dogs, so they would be forced to share their owner’s limited food allowances. The charities realized that the most humane thing to do would be to put these animals to sleep, rather than have them starving on the streets.
After the first wave of pet killings at the very start of the war, things slowed down some until London was first bombed in September 1940. People panicked, and once again veterinary offices and pet charities were forced to euthanize thousands more family pets. Within one week alone, 750,000 cats and dogs were put down.
Many people refused to do away with pets that they considered to be family members. Some shared their food with their pets, sometimes feeding them horsemeat. Rather than go to air raid shelters without their beloved pets, many people stayed home with them when the sirens started blaring.
Some people and organizations also tried to save as many animals as they could. The Battersea Dogs and Cats Home fed and cared for nearly 150,000 dogs during the war, even though they only had four people on staff. The wealthy Duchess of Hamilton even established an emergency animal sanctuary. She took in hundreds of animals and had her staff out scouring the streets of London for pets to rescue. She even took some of the animals into her own home.
Though it sounds horrific to us now, we should remember that, for the most part, the people who euthanized their pets were trying to prevent their suffering. When food became scarce, many felt they had to choose between their human family members and their pets. We should not judge these people too harshly for their actions in the face of real terror and the threat of death. But we should also remember that animals also suffer when humans decide to go to war.