Much is known about daily life in Britain during World War II: the rationing, the bombing, the evacuation of thousands of children from the cities to the countryside. A less-well-known aspect, however, was the destruction of thousands of beloved family pets just before war was officially declared on Germany. People were urged to have their pets put to sleep for various reasons but particularly because rationing would mean the animals would starve (it was considered an offence to give rationed food to pets) and they could die during a raid since pets were not allowed in communal shelters. The message to pet-owners was clear: having your cat, dog, hamster, parrot, etc, put to sleep was the kind, humane and responsible thing to do.
I remember reading about this several years ago and feeling horrified at the idea of so many animals killed. This inspired me to write a short story based on this aspect of war for the Writing for Children module in my MA; I wanted to explore how children might feel at the prospect of having their pet killed, and what they might do as a result. This also proved to be a hook for author Miriam Halahmy in her new book The Emergency Zoo.
The novel focuses on the days leading up to the declaration of war on Germany in the autumn of 1939. Young Londoners Tilly and Rosy discover that they will be imminently evacuated to the countryside and that their much-loved dog and cat will be put to sleep, along with thousands of other animals. Appalled at the thought of their pets dying, they hide them in an abandoned hut on the outskirts of West London, while they think of a way to keep them alive during the evacuation. News soon gets out and local children flock to the hut seeking sanctuary for their pets, and thus The Emergency Zoo is born.
At first the novel feels like a Famous Five adventure, with the children biking off for hours a time and establishing a life that is completely separate from their parents. However, the background to the action is not the cosy, ‘everything will be all right’ atmosphere of Enid Blyton’s classics. Reading the story with the knowledge of what will affect the children and their families automatically makes the tale more tense and Halahmy’s descriptions of the queues of people waiting outside of vets’ practices and the piles of bodies waiting to be burned brings the horror of the situation home. It is handled sensitively, with a younger reader in mind, but the details support why the children are so desperate to keep their pets away from certain death.
It is refreshing to have a heroine like Tilly – a girl who can be emotional yet strong, brave and resourceful. As a reader I could feel her desperation as time quickly ran out and a longer-term solution was needed. At various points in the novel, I was on the brink of tears and cuddled my two cats closer, thankful for living in a time where horrendous decisions and actions like these are not required. This is a sympathetic and moving story of a side of war that doesn’t receive much attention and fills a gap in children’s war literature that needed discussing.
Please note that while I received a copy of this book for review purposes, this did not influence my opinion in any way.