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  • The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War II's Unknown Tragedy by Hilda Kean
  • A. W. H. Bates (bio)
The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War II's Unknown Tragedy. By Hilda Kean. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 233 pp. Cloth. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-226-31832-5.)

The massacre of some 400,000 domestic animals—mainly cats and dogs—in England in the early months of the Second World War is all the more distressing because the slaughter was apparently unnecessary. As the conflict intensified, it transpired that companion animals did not, as had been feared, consume vital rations and panic during air raids; in fact, they could be a rare source of support for their beleaguered human carers. Like many embarrassing episodes, the massacre did not make it into the history books, and Hilda Kean has done an important service by bringing the facts to light (she is not the only historian to have been told by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that it never happened).

Writing about it still presents challenges beyond the paucity of primary sources. As Professor Kean explains in her opening chapter, the "people's war" soon became a central part of English cultural identity: the archetypal conflict between good and evil, with the allied forces heroically opposing Nazism. The killing of dogs and cats was not only the sort of behavior that the British, quite literally, attributed to the Nazis, but also undermined the conventional wisdom that the British public, faced with war on an unprecedented scale, had simply kept calm and carried on. Indeed, the massacre looks uncomfortably like blind panic, before the enemy had even shown its face.

The subject's revisionist importance for historians of the home front does, I think, overcome any objections that, in a conflict that killed some 60 million people, the deaths of dogs, even in their hundreds of thousands, did not really matter (if it didn't, why expunge it from history?). Even the reader who regards animal lives as much less important than human ones will find in this compellingly written book some valuable insights into the social dynamics of a nation at war.

Kean opens with a spirited defense of animal history, arguing that, just as 20th century historians turned their attention to the lower classes and to women—majority groups underrepresented in written primary sources—so 21st-century historians are widening their scope still further to include nonhuman animals. The parallel can, of course, only be taken so far: They are all examples of how historians can revitalize their field by looking in fresh places and utilizing new kinds of evidence, but there are fundamental differences, not least that class and gender roles are socially constructed and thus fluid, while animals are immutably "other." The 20th century saw working-class and women prime ministers, but the job is unlikely ever to be filled by a nonhuman.

As Kean observes, some people would therefore rule out "animal history" altogether on the grounds that animals lack historical agency: to put it bluntly, they enjoy, suffer, and endure but cannot make any intentional difference: Unlike peasants and women, animals will never be emancipated. Fortunately, doubts about lack of agency are unlikely to deter most readers, while if the writers of animal histories are deemed to be motivated by their desire to remedy injustices, they surely have no more need to apologize than do their socialist and feminist counterparts.

The massacre forms the centerpiece of a fascinating "bottom up" history of animals in wartime, which explores the lives of the millions of companion animals living in Britain in the 1930s. Unfortunately for them, they commonly ate "human food," and when war was declared were seen as competitors for scarce resources. With no [End Page 232] prompting from the government, many people decided to take their animals to veterinarians and clinics for killing, or else to abandon them to "fend for themselves." Charities, such as the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers: queues stretched for up to half a mile, clinics ran out...


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