DOG & CAT RESCUE IN THE 1920s
CAT AND DOG LIFE
By C. Rowland Johns
Author of “Dogs You’d Like to Meet,” etc.
Chapter XXXVI of “Wonderful London” (c 1923)
SUNDAY morning is the London dog’s most joyous holiday. The ponds on the commons, the Serpentine, and other sheets of water allure him in warm weather, and there, either in the water or on the brink, he has a glorious adventure. The dogs you see frisking here are mostly cross-bred - the more mixed their ancestry the less alloyed seems their happiness. So long as you do not object to noise you can spend a very pleasant half-hour watching the dogs swimming and scampering.
But if you wish to see pedigree dogs - proud, well-groomed dogs, perfect in form, masterpieces of the breeder’s art - a big dog show in London is the best place in all the world. Three thousand dogs under one roof is no exceptional sight, and to the dog-lover the visit is thrilling. The dogs come from all parts of the kingdom; they are the finished product of the work of thousands of men and women who have thought dogs, talked dogs and bred dogs for most of their lives and are now hoping that their productions will win them fame and fortune.
For there are modest fortunes at stake and the decision rests with the judges in the show rings - experts in particular breeds, each with a specialised knowledge of a few types of dogs, for no man knows all about every breed. If a dog wins a championship he becomes an aristocrat of aristocrats, his value jumps up from perhaps £50 to £1,000, and if he lives long enough his purchaser will get his money back even at this high price.
ALL the exhibitors are anxious and excited, even the dogs are mettlesome as they stand in the ring. The judges, who control their fate, are the only ones who are normally calm. Into the ring comes a girl with a nervous dog - a good dog but not used to showing. He slinks behind her leather-covered legs and looks frightened. The judge waves them aside and beckons forward a man whose canine companion walks proudly, picks his feet up like a spirited war-horse and is handled with perfect showmanship. The dog wins a first prize; later he may win a championship, and the “dog-handler” is greeted effusively by the owner as he leaves the ring.
The initiated have some idea of how the professional “handler” has achieved his success, but he has his secrets and he keeps them to himself, for they are his means of living. He knows how to make a dog walk so that a judge will pick him out of the mass of other competitors, he understands all the fine arts of “ faking.” And the girl with the timorous dog goes back slowly to the bench and waits for better luck. Some day, perhaps, she will learn the trade better and her dogs will have the coveted prefix “ Champion” in front of their names and be sent to America in exchange for a five thousand dollar draft. These breeders live for their dogs, and the dogs are wonderful examples of what human patience and Nature can do. It is often hard, galling work, but it has a fascination for those who indulge in it. The dog shows of London are certainly places in which to wonder and admire, for beauty is the dominating impression.
IF you seek for sporting dogs in London - except at dog shows - you must go to a whippet-racing meeting. They are becoming rather popular, the infection having spread from the mining districts. There is a regular system of betting, “bookies” call the odds as if they were at Epsom and everyone has a “bit on.” A whippet may win £100 on a Sunday morning, in stakes and bets, for its rough-clad, working-man owner. These dogs again realize fancy prices and eat the lean of the best chops, it being rumoured that the children eat the fat.
But all the dogs in London are not so precious as these darlings of the show ring and race-course. You can visit a Dogs’ Home and prove it for yourself. London has more agencies for the welfare of dogs and cats than any other city in the world, not only because London has more dogs than any other, but because the Metropolis has more dog-lovers who are concerned with the welfare of “kicked-out” animals. There are two kinds of dogs’ homes in London. The largest - Battersea and the North London - receive from the police the dogs found wandering without visible means of support, and at licence time a continual stream, a swollen river of dogs, who almost outvie Niagara for deafening uproar, flows into these establishments.
Barking, baying, yelping, whining, you hear the din from afar. Every visitor who comes to search for a lost dog is hailed with a fresh outbreak of forte fortissimo discords from the lost and strayed. You raise your voice and shriek yourself hoarse as you describe to the kennelman the dog you are seeking, and, finally, you resort to gestures of the hands and facial contortions to convey your meaning. In a dazed way you realize that every dog is jumping up and down in his kennel, thrusting himself close against the bars, crying out that he is willing to become your slave for life if only you will be kind enough to buy him and adopt him as your chum. But you are looking for your own dog, and your heart sinks because he is not here. You inform the attendant in a hoarse yell that he was of good pedigree and a prizewinner.
THE man in leggings shrugs his shoulders despondently and shouts out something about dog-thieves. You go back slowly to the office and are advised to come again; they tell you hopefully that a dog may turn up weeks after he has been lost. And then, as you leave the office, you come face to face with Brown, whom you meet at lunch occasionally in the City. He has come to buy a dog, knows nothing about them except that they bare useful burglar-alarms, and says he doesn’t mind how many breeds it combines so long as it will bark at the correct time and is good with children. At his earnest request, but with much unwillingness, you go back to the kennels and look again at the dogs. The part of them which is not voice seems to be all eyes, anxiously expectant, pitifully imploring. Their voices protest, but their eyes pray. You read in their eyes the whole story of man’s association with the dog, and you wish there were a hundred Browns whom you could persuade to buy one of these prisoners.
You recommend a small black and white foxterrier with alert ears and shining brown eyes, and the kennelman agrees with you, but Brown thinks he would like a dog with more style - a kind of Airedale or retriever, or something of that kind - “good without being expensive.” You yell at him that a good dog is never safe from dog-thieves, and he finally agrees to take the terrier. Brown gives his name and address at the office, pays a pound note, gets a receipt and, patting his canine friend encouragingly, marches off proudly, with his new dog capering joyfully at finding himself again on the streets of London. By the time you are out of earshot of the home Brown has fears that his wife will not like the dog, but you tell him to explain that he was only just in time to prevent it being destroyed, and that any deficiency in stylishness will be forgotten in the emotion of joy at the saving of a dog’s life. And you tell him that if it were not for the women times would be much harder for dogs, because women keep most of the dogs’ homes going.
“Are there any more besides this one? “ he asks. “I imagined they had all the dogs in London collected up for my choice.”
You are just going to tell Brown that there are a score of others, smaller ones with different objects, when a smart red motor van dashes past. It bears the name of the home and you hear dogs barking inside. Hoping that your dog may be among them, you leave Brown hastily and return. The van is discharging its load of lost dogs. Out come three or four mongrels and then a fine Alsatian. Your heart sinks, your own dog has not appeared. Two more cross-bred dogs, and then you hear a familiar bark and your own chum, struggling, is handed out at the end of a chain; he dashes for you and nearly pulls the attendant over. You seize him, and the attendant asks if he is yours. “Then you’d better come to the office,” he says, and on the way reads you a lecture - well-deserved, perhaps - for not having your name and address on the collar. “That’s what makes people lose their dogs,” he comments. “Mug’s game, I call it.” So you pay five shillings and take your dog away, and you bless the police for their speed, in picking him up, and the subscribers to dogs’ homes for thinking in advance of your possible misfortune - and carelessness.
MOST people do not realize that there are more dogs in London than there are people in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings put together. Members of this vast canine population are always liable to injury from accidents; they reach decrepit old age in ten or twelve years, fall victims to disease, develop faults which make their owners wish to be rid of them. All these things make it desirable that small shelters should be opened in various parts of London. Most are in poor districts like, Plaistow, Bethnal Green, and other areas where there is much hard work and little hard cash. It is to these shelters that dog-lovers in London look for the remedy of that common evil - the turning adrift of unwanted dogs. Were it not for these shabby sanctuaries, where the sweet and cloying odour of chloroform pervades the room which contains the lethal chambers, the number of stray dogs and cats wandering hopelessly about the streets of London would be immense.
In the East-end of London there is a large foreign and semi-foreign population who will not deliberately commission the destruction of their dogs or cats, although they are quite willing to hand their superfluous animals over to a shelter, murmuring, “You will not kill it! “washing their hands in the air and inwardly calling on their consciences to witness that they have done the right thing.
AND so they have, although it would have been better still if they had put a couple more coppers in the box, for chloroform is expensive, especially when a dog or a cat, and not a conscience, has to be put to sleep.
“But the great thing,” we are told by the solemn caretaker, “is to get the animals. Look at ‘em ! Better dead than alive, I think.”
Yes, it’s a dismal place, this shelter. But it has its bright episodes, such as when a boy brings a neighbour’s dog along because his mother thinks it a nuisance, and the dog’s owner arrives just as it is being gently lifted into what looks like an elongated band-box, and is really a zinc lethal chamber. The dog-owner fervently wishes to place the boy and his mother - especially the mother - into this humane device, though his words do not suggest any humane feelings. The boy escapes through the back-door and the curtain falls, so far as the caretaker is concerned. But, generally, there is not much fun about running a shelter for animals in London.
Many of these little places deal with cats as well as dogs, and there are many more cats than dogs in the poorer districts. The London cats would be as numerous as rabbits in Australia if these shelters did not carry on their work of rescue. You will not see cats congregated in joyful and vociferous crowds in London - though you may hear their melancholy voices at night; but you will scarcely traverse any thoroughfare without seeing at least one pussy sunning herself on some fence or window-ledge, secure from ill-mannered dogs. Suburban streets swarm with cats; and even in the busy thoroughfares of the City and West-end they go about their own concerns, aloof and dignified.
The London cat has the distinction of supporting a special industry. In almost every street market there is a stall bearing the sign, “Pussy’s Butcher,” and the itinerant vendor of cat’s meat is still seen - and heard - in suburban by-ways. The stray cat problem is even more difficult than the problem of the stray dog. There is not even the prospect of a 7s. 6d. tax at some future date to restrain their owners from allowing innumerable kittens to live until they grow up and are not wanted. When they are lost, accidentally or otherwise, it is no one’s business to collect them - indeed, it would be hard to distinguish them, pussy being by nature a wanderer - and a stray cat continues to be a stray unless she can find herself a new home: until she is so far gone in wretchedness that some kindly soul picks her up and takes her to a cats’ home.
True, a cat will not starve as quickly as a dog, for she has access to the domestic dustbins, the edible contents of which so much astonished Max O’Rell when he lived in London.
WHILE January 1st is the dog’s evil day, August Bank Holiday, and the weeks before and after, hold tragedy for many cats. Presuming on their ‘faculty for picking up a living somehow, many cat owners set out for their holidays without making any provision for their pets, expecting to find pussy on their return, plump and debonair, purring a welcome on the doorstep! Some cats are old campaigners, and know how to insinuate themselves as temporary boarders in a new home; but the majority fall victims to the vagaries of climate, bad and dirty food, and distress at the loss of their homes and friends. To these poor waifs the cat and dog shelters are havens of refuge.
There are many people who hold that the life of a domestic animal should never be taken, but a shelter run on this principle would soon out-rival the Zoological Gardens in size and expense, without any money takings at the gate. It is no pleasure to those who conduct these rescue places to destroy life, they are true lovers of animals, and yet, from a sense of duty, spend their lives in doing work which is abhorrent to them.
MUCH of the work is voluntary; there is “no money in it “ for the commercially minded, and no one will do it unless he wishes to prevent animal suffering. The fumes of the chloroform and gas produce headaches, but the heartaches are harder to bear. Yet they do the uncongenial work year after year, spending their lives in a thankless and difficult drudgery, because they believe that death is the best gift they can bestow on the superabundant feline and canine residents in poverty-ridden homes.
Here is one of the workers coming into the room. She looks at the cats in the cages around the walls and speaks to the caretaker.
“I have a home for that kitten. We will keep her, the rest must go.”
The work begins. The lid of the lethal box is lifted, the chloroform is placed in a shallow dish, a cloth is soaked in it, waved around the box so that. the air mixes with the fumes, and the cat is placed inside, the lid shut down, and an opening left through which the cat may be stroked and soothed. A working woman brings in a dog and watches the last act in the life-drama of the cat.
“What a lovely death ! “ she exclaims. “I ‘opes I goes as easy when my time comes. Why, it’s just sleep coming over you like a silver cloud I
The lady who supervises the shelter answers: “Yes, it’s very easy” She does not explain that she sold her piano to keep the shelter going in its early days. nor that she could run a car with the money she spends in the work, although it is true. But some people wonder what she is making out of it! They think that no one ever does anything except for selfish reasons.
We look in at another shelter. There are kennels at the back, a dog in each. Boys and girls crowd the yard with dogs, over fifty in all, brought in since noon, and it is but two o’clock. No high-pedigreed dogs here - mongrels, mostly females - no one wants them. Dirty, verminous, diseased; untrained to the house, ill-tempered and snappish - the kennel manager has no option but to destroy them all. He hates doing it, but that’s his job. They are East-end dogs; if they were worth five shillings they would be taken to Club Row on a Sunday morning and sold. There is no subsidy from the police for this sort of work; nor for the cat shelters, either.
THE children are sent away and the slaughter begins. “It never ends,” the kennel manager tells you. “It’s a pity puppies are so plentiful,” he says. “That’s the devil of it. People take ‘em and bring ‘em up, and when they get tired of ‘em they bring ‘em here. But it’s better to bring ‘em than turn ‘em out.”
We ask if a good dog can be bought cheaply, and the manager shakes his head.
“No bargain basement here,” he says. “This is just a dump for unwanteds: you’ll have to go to the big dogs’ homes for noble pedigrees at knock-out prices. Our work is with duds and throw-outs.” He tells us that a pariah dog can pick up a living in the Orient, but not in the east of London. Nor in the west, either, for the sanitary authorities allow no garbage and there are no caves of refuge. Only the tarred streets, the wet gutter, and, instead of a meal, the cast-out dog is shown the handle of a broom or feels the toe of a boot. The small homes exist to prevent these tragedies. Dogs are too cheap.
Out of all the dogs found by the police only one in twenty is claimed. The owners of the rest are either afraid to claim their dog because they have no licence or there was no name and address on the collar, or else, sad comment on human fidelity, they do not care enough about their “ex-pets” to seek for them at the official dogs’ homes. But here is something different. We are turning away from the shelter sad at heart when a woman - well spoken but poorly dressed, sad-eyed and wistful - arrives with a dog in her arms. Falteringly she whispers to the solemn and tired caretaker that she has been out of work for four months and can’t scrape the licence money – and - and - The dog is set down and the woman, with a sob of agony, kneels down and bids her chum farewell and stammers out that she hopes they’ll be kind to him and not let him suffer. She rushes out, but the caretaker calls her back. No, I don’t want you to pay anything; I want to know if you can keep him if someone pays the licence? “ A licence form is handed to her, and the woman, hardly believing that it can be true, picks her dog up in her arms, and, holding him very close to her heart, goes out of the gloomy death chamber into the sunlit world again, her soul filled with hope and faith in human nature.
In addition to the cat and dog shelters and the larger dogs’ homes, there are other places supported by animal lovers for the alleviation of suffering. There is no need for any dog or cat in London to suffer from lack of veterinary attention because of the poverty of the owner. There are hospitals, dispensaries, clinics and out-patients’ wards connected with most of the animals’ protection associations. If an animal suffers from lack of skilled treatment it is the fault of the owner’s neglect or the owner’s ignorance.
Tricycles and motor ambulances are often to be seen taking sick, injured or stray animals to the hospitals. There are caravans, or travelling dispensaries, which take up a pitch in side streets, to which crowd children with their sick and afflicted domestic pets. The Canine Defence League has a scheme by which veterinary surgeons visit sick dogs in their own homes free of cost to poor owners.
It would be a mistake to imagine that London’s dogs and cats are all in need of such help as these organizations give, for Londoners in general are good and considerate owners, and the public authorities are more thoughtful of animal welfare than provincial governing bodies. Dogs can run free in parks and on commons, can ride on trams and omnibuses, and until recently could be buried in semi-regal state in the Dogs’ Cemetery in Hyde Park. But this little canine graveyard was filled sooner than the Duke of Cambridge anticipated and receives no more occupants, and now the nearest is at Huntingdon, where, as in Hyde Park, expensive and ornate tombstones testify to the devotion of men and women to their old friends.