Some seventy years after the end of the Second World War, books on this conflict crowd the shelves of libraries, shops and studies, so historians are obliged to search for unknown, or rather underexplored, stories to tell for the general reader.
Now Hilda Kean has written The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, a book with almost the same title as the historian Robert Darnton’s well-known essay ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ (which Kean acknowledges). Darnton’s essay describes how apprentices in a printing house in Paris slaughtered their employer’s beloved cats in a cruel act of revenge for the poor working conditions he had subjected them to. Kean’s book tells the story of a massacre too. Almost 400,000 cats and dogs were put to sleep in the space of about a week at the request of their owners not long after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. The owners had a variety of reasons for doing this. Some, knowing how terrified their pets were on Bonfire Night, with all the attendant bangs and flashes, realised how much worse it would be when bombs started to fall and wanted to protect them from nights of terror. Others feared that their frightened pets might run out of the house into the blacked-out streets and be unable to find the way home, or be run over by vehicles with their headlights dimmed in the darkness, as wartime regulations demanded. Others were concerned about whether their pets would have enough to eat, anticipating the introduction of food rationing, which eventually came into effect in January 1940, and regulations forbidding the feeding of food that was fit for human consumption to animals.
Kean is interested in what she describes as ‘shared crossed-species experiences’. These became more numerous during the war. For instance, both humans and their pets tended to eat much the same food (offal was never rationed), and both sought comfort and reassurance in each other. In Kean’s view this meant