The British pet holocaust


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Ad in left inside cover of Air Raid Precautions Handbook for the Cash bolt pistol, ‘THE STANDARD INSTRUMENT for the HUMANE DESTRUCTION OF DOMESTIC ANIMALS … the speediest, most efficient means of destroying any animal, including horses, cats, and all sizes of dogs.’

An estimated 750,000 pets were killed in what’s been dubbed the British pet holocaust, many before Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 and before a single British rifle had been fired and before the Luftwaffe (German air force) had dropped a single bomb. 

How could this have happened in a notorious nation of pet-lovers? The explanation isn’t nearly as complex as the Nazis’ love of animals and can be summarized in two words: war hysteria, stoked by the government. Make that one word: hysteria, stoked by the government and swallowed whole by a panicked people.

The committee that put out this pamphlet, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee, was charged with, among many other things, deciding what to do with pets when war broke out. War clouds had been gathering for years; it’s hard to tell now how many people really believed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he got off an airplane waving papers he said guaranteed peace for our time in 1938 (not in our time, as commonly believed). Britain and the Allies had let Nazi Germany roll into the Rhineland, occupy Austria then Czechoslovakia to mollify Hitler and prevent another horrible war. Then Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 and war was upon them anyway.

The horrors of World War I were far from forgotten, not even 20 years past, well within the memory of most Britons. But this time, everyone knew war would be coming to them, not just they to war: the deliberate Nazi bombing and shelling of cities, killing of civilians in the military’s way even before the Holocaust and all the other merciless elements of Blitzkrieg confirmed that civilians would be targets. (Some 75 million people would die before World War II was over, more than half of them civilians, about 40 million.)

The Home Office was pretty categorical: no pets allowed in air-raid shelters. (Look closely at images of Londoners sheltering in a Tube station during a bombing, though, and you’ll see the occasional cat or dog, so clearly air raid wardens bent the rules on occasion.) The government was also worried, and rightly so, that food would have to be rationed. The National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee thought that tender-hearted pet owners who should be well-fed contributors to the war effort would split their rations with their beloved pets instead. As the war continued, this question became critical. In August 1940, a Waste of Food Order was passed, making it an offense punishable by two years’ imprisonment to feed animals with food fit for human consumption. Dog biscuits disappeared from shops. One official at the Ministry of Food was recorded saying in a meeting that ‘The only solution is that a reduction of the dog population should be secured.’ The government even sanctioned the criminal prosecution of cat owners for giving them milk. It was widely reported that cats consumed an 40 million gallons of milk a year. The Chancellor even considered a cat tax.

Mindful that bombs would probably fall on British cities, maybe even poison gas, too, the committee pamphlet ‘Advice to Animal Owners’ suggested that Britons move their pets from the big cities, where no shelter was possible, into the countryside, which was not as likely to be bombed and gassed. The same went for children. The pamphlet concluded with, ‘If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.’ The pets that is. Not the children. Hence the bolt pistol. The sinister-sounding Operation Pied Piper saw millions of children shipped off to the countryside, to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. Unlike the pets, most came back.

All this hysteria definitely had an effect. When Chamberlain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, five days of mass animal destruction followed as hundreds of thousands of British pet owners flocked to pet surgery clinics and animal hospitals to have their pets killed. Thousands of cats were simply turned out to join giant feral colonies, like Clapham Common in South London. A London carcass-rendering firm was reportedly stacked several feet deep with dog and cat carcasses; the National Canine Defense League reportedly ran out of chloroform. An article in Animal World later reported that ‘the work of destroying animals was continued, day and night.’ One account cites 400,000 animals killed in the first week of September 1939 alone. But the worst was yet to come.

When the Luftwaffe began the Blitz in the fall of 1940, the aerial bombardment of Britain that was supposed to bring the country to its knees, there was once again a mad rush to kill or simply abandon pets. One vet recalled that the blitzed streets were ‘inundated with cats.’ ‘ Municipal parties set out on slaughtering campaigns using a variety of methods that would make the heart of a Nazi death camp commander swell with pride — electrocution, cyanide and chloroform, often 100 animals at a time. 

Not even the animals at London Zoo escaped the carnage. The black widow spiders and poisonous snakes were all killed, as were one manatee, six Indian fruit bats, seven Nile crocodiles, a muntjac (a kind of runty, barking Asian deer), two alligators and two lion cubs. In Bristol, the polar bears were slaughtered and the rhesus monkeys sacrificed for experimentation. 

The rate of killing eventually slowed as people realized this slaughter was senseless and unwarranted. The government relented but only in part, making allowances for cat owners who relied on them to keep mice and rats down, such as the owners of large warehouses. ‘Although no liquid milk could be spared for cats, some damaged dried milk powder might be made available to cats engaged on work of national importance’ — catching vermin in war production plants. No such concessions were made for dogs. From 1942 on, if a family was struggling to feed Fido, they could lend them to the Army as a war dog on full rations, feed them as best they could, or turn them out to fend for themselves. Just like in the U.S., many owners sent their dogs to war. Many never returned.

There’s many more war animal monuments in the UK than the U.S. A national Animals in War Memorial (above) was unveiled near Hyde Park, London, in 2004 commemorating the countless animals that served and died under British military command. How much is inspired by guilt we’ll never know. The memorial features two bronze statues of heavily laden mules about to pass through a white wall and a bronze horse that made it through; there are camels, elephants, donkeys, oxen on the wall. And a dog. Not a shepherd, more like a setter, looking mournfully back through the wall. The wall is covered with inscriptions in a jumble of fonts and sizes, all uppercase, such as this one directly beneath the main heading:




Beneath and to the right of the main heading:


Cruel to be kind: Nazis loved animals


Nazis loved animals. No, they revered them.

On April 21, 1933, almost immediately after the Nazis came to power, the Reichstag (parliament) passed laws regulating animal slaughter: No animals were to be slaughtered without anesthetic, no exceptions. Germany was also the first nation in the world to ban vivisection. A law imposing a total ban on vivisection was enacted on August 16, 1933, by Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, who was also prime minister of Prussia — the ‘unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments’ was at an end, he said (see illustration on next page). He added that those who ‘still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property’ would be sent to concentration camps. Göring also banned commercial animal trapping and imposed severe restrictions on hunting and fishing, including, it’s alleged, sending a fisherman to a concentration camp for cutting up a live frog as bait.

The more comprehensive Reich Animal Protection Act, passed later in 1933 (listed in “Peter Pike and the Silver Shepherd” in its entirety, translated of course) had numerous prohibitions against the use of animals, including for filmmaking and other events that might cause pain or damage to their health, force-feeding fowls before slaughter and the like. The two principals of the German Ministry of the Interior responsible for drafting the legislative text wrote in their juridical comment that an animal was to be ‘protected for itself’ and not just for human convenience.

This is a radical interpretation of human-animal relations and one that contravened thousands of years of Judeo-Christian thinking. Nature was not a raw resource to be exploited by humanity. And man was no longer top of the heap but shared it with animals.

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Animals  – doves, a parrot, frogs, a scrawny lion and a heckuva lot of lab rabbits –  giving the Nazi salute to Hermann Göring for banning vivisection – ‘Vivisection verboten,’ reads the sign above Göring’s head. From the satirical journal Kladderadatsch, September 1933. The magazine must have done right by the Nazis because it lasted until 1944, when just about everything else in Germany but the military was kaput.

The Nazis wanted to ensure future generations revered animals, too. In February 1934, a decree was enacted by the Prussian Ministry of Commerce and Employment which introduced education on animal protection at the primary, secondary and college levels. This was hardly a first but had never been attempted at the state level. In July 1934, Das Reichsjagdgesetz (the Reich Hunting Law) was also passed, limiting hunting and creating the German Hunting Society, whose mission was to educate the hunting community on ethical hunting practices. Nazi Germany was also the first state in the world to place the wolf under protection; the government also passed laws protecting bears, wild horses, bison and other endangered wild European animals.

The world applauded. In 1934, Nazi Germany hosted an international conference on animal welfare in Berlin hailed as a breakthrough in Britain and America. A law regulating the slaughter of living fish and other poikilotherms was enacted in March 1936, after years of careful judicial review. That same month, an order was passed on afforestation and on further protection of animals in the wild. In 1937, a decree was published by the Ministry of the Interior which specified guidelines for the transportation of animals, and … you get the idea.

This was much, much more than love for animals. This was more a mystical feeling of kinship with nature. Humans, well, that’s a different story.

The systematic persecution of Jews began almost as soon as Hitler came to power, as he’d vowed to do in Mein Kampf. The Nazis passed an amazing estimated 2,000 anti-Jewish decrees between 1933 and 1945. In 1941, about the same time as the mass deportations of Jews to the death camps, a law was passed banning Jews from having pets. Some memoirs refer to this as the most heartbreaking incident of their lives – until, that is, their entire families were slaughtered.

Nazi Germany and her allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites in all. Most of the Jews living in the German Reich, German-occupied Poland, German-occupied Baltic states and USSR were killed. The chances of survival once the German war-death machine rolled in have been estimated at about 5%. These murders were carried out by mass shooting; by extermination through overwork and scant rations; in gas chambers and mobile gas vans. The most notorious extermination centers were all in occupied Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek.

The Aktion T4 program —  a postwar abbreviation of Tiergartenstraße 4, the street address of the Chancellery department in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten — for killing the mentally ill, handicapped and others began in 1938 and accelerated with the war. The secret killing of defective infants began in 1939; by 1941, more than 5,000 children had been killed. Altogether, the ‘doctors’ of T4 were responsible for about 90,000 deaths.

How could anyone, even warped Nazis, promulgate death to Jews, the mentally and physically afflicted, other Europeans like Russians, Poles, Slavs, Roma, criminal deviants and gay men and other undesirables, and go so far overboard protecting animals?

Any explanation defies belief. It’s easy to dismiss the benevolent Nazi attitude toward animals and murderous hatred of humans as hypocrisy. But that’s an easy out. The fact of the matter is, Nazis made policy what people throughout the millennia have felt, that their own domestic animals and those in the wild are noble, sacred beings morally far above most people, especially those seen as other – people of other beliefs, religion, culture, skin color. Many Nazis, including Hitler, strongly identified with animals; the name ‘Adolf’ is a cognate of the Old High German Athalwolf, noble and wolf. I’ve already mentioned Reichsjägermeister (Master of the German Hunting Society) and Luftwaffe chief Göring’s frantic animal protection and hunting laws, but he also established huge game preserves. He even kept seven young lions in succession.

Official Nazi ideology abolished moral distinctions between animals and people; people were simply more evolved animals. So, just as in the animal world a lion is superior to a worm and a cat to a dog, so some people are inherently inferior to others. Increasing the moral status of animals and decreasing the moral status of some humans by blurring the boundaries between them made it possible for National Socialists to disenfranchise large groups of people.

I’m not excusing Nazi behavior in any way, just trying to explain it, and probably not very well at that. It would take some serious psychological study to unravel this mystery. Still, try the quote at the book’s beginning on coworkers and family (The more I know people, the more I love dogs), and see how many agree.

The Hundesprechschule Asra is also real but was more a trained circus act than any attempt at canine speech. The Nazis really did try telepathy experiments with dogs but didn’t get too far. Training dogs, not all German shepherds, to be scouts, guards and the like was a big business from the first world war, submerged by restrictions in the interwar period, boomed again with the coming of the Nazis and World War II. Each death and concentration camp had their complement of dogs, again not all German shepherds.

The killer St. Bernard Barri is real. So is the account of dogs eating prisoners. So are the Jewish murder supplement, the vanishing truck trick, the selection, the zoo, the fanciful cottage names. They occurred at various times in various camps; I’ve just compressed these horrors into one night at one camp.

Barri was stationed at Sobibór first, then sent to Treblinka. Survivors describe him as so large that his shoulders reached the buttocks and abdomen of a man of average size. He frequently bit his victims in the buttocks, in the abdomen and often, with male inmates, in the genitals, even biting them off entirely. When an inmate was weakened by disease and starvation, as many were, Barri would knock him to the ground and maul him beyond recognition. It’s not known what happened to Barri after Treblinka was liberated, but the Allies did record that the Nazis abandoned many if not all their dogs when fleeing. So much for Nazi animal compassion.Sobibór, incidentally, is also where one of only three documented revolts in the entire death camp system took place. In October 1943, Jewish prisoners, allegedly led by a Jewish Soviet POW, started killing SS officers then made a break for it. About 300 of the 600 inmates escaped SS machine guns and the minefields surrounding the camp; of these, only about 50-60 survived the war, tracked down and murdered by the SS, Wehrmacht (army) and fiercely anti-Semitic Poles all too eager to help. Sobibór, the 2018 Russian entry for Best Foreign Film, gives an unflinching look at camp life and the revolt. Russian films tend toward gooey sentimentality and ultra-patriotism, in my experience; this one has but scant patriotism and so many intense, gruesome scenes it’s difficult to watch at times. The gas chamber and drunken SS party scenes in particular border on the unwatchable. And I have a pretty strong stomach.