Note: This piece contains description of cruelty toward animals.
The British pride themselves on being a nation of dog lovers and a people who have transformed the lives of dogs. There is some truth in Britain’s reputation as a country of canine innovation. The first dog shows were held in mid-nineteenth century Britain, and the Kennel Club was founded in 1873 to promote the standardization and improvement of dog breeds. The RSPCA was established in 1824 and Britain was at the forefront of anti-cruelty legislation with the banning of carts pulled by dogs and dog-fighting. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, British anti-vivisectionists, such as feminist and writer Frances Power Cobbe, led the charge against the use of animals (including dogs) in vivisection, whilst Battersea Dogs’ Home, from the moment of its foundation in 1860, portrayed itself as a bastion of kindness towards the forlorn street dog who would find redemption within its confines. In addition, British hunting dogs were renowned across the globe, and Spratt’s patent dry dog food, which was initially made in London, was sold across the world.
But Britain’s canine savoir-faire was not exceptional. It emerged within transnational frameworks. I explore this history in my recent book Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans Made Modern New York, London, and Paris. I argue that a model of Western human-canine relations – which I call dogopolis – emerged in modern London, New York, and Paris. Dogopolis was the arrangement that arose amongst the middle classes of London, New York, and Paris regarding how urban dogs should cohabit cities with humans. Between 1800 and the 1930s, dogs and humans were thrown together in these rapidly expanding cities. This generated a host of feelings: love, compassion, disgust, and fear amongst those who owned dogs and those who had to learn to share the city with them. Dogs were eventually integrated into city life in line with middle class emotional values that centred on revulsion at dirt, fears of vagabondage, anxieties about crime, and the promotion of humanitarian sentiments. By the late 1930s, fears of biting and straying dogs had diminished; canine death had been rendered mostly acceptable through the management of canine suffering; dogs fulfilled emotional roles as pets and as police dogs (who in theory soothed worries about criminality); and the first steps had been taken to reduce the disgust provoked by canine defecation. Underscoring this transformation was the actual and perceived ability of dogs to bond emotionally with humans.
The emotionally-charged transnational attempts to harness, constrain or eliminate canine straying, biting, suffering, thinking (in the training of police dogs), and defecating became part of the making of Western urban modernity. But dogopolis did not obliterate earlier aspects of human-dog relations. Some dogs kept on straying and biting, and dog mess remained an unresolved problem. But the place of dogs within the Western city was assured and a model of urban human-dog cohabitation established, within which Western urbanites still reside.
Setting the canine histories of London in dialogue with those of New York and Paris suggest that British exceptionalism vis-à-vis dogs is more mirage than reality. The much-celebrated love of dogs amongst the British also needs qualifying. From the nineteenth century onwards, British care and compassion has flowed almost exclusively towards particular types of dogs, namely pets and pedigrees. Street dogs on the other hand were branded dirty, diseased, and dangerous, and were cast out from the British society through extensive culling. Battersea Dogs’ Home, along with other refuges, facilitated the removal of street dogs through the development of humane killing, introduced with installation of Benjamin Ward Richardson’s lethal chamber at Battersea in 1884. The humanitarian gloss given to canine culling through the narrative of dogs falling ‘asleep’ in the lethal chamber aligned the removal of street dogs with animal protectionist and public hygiene norms that promoted the clean, kind, and efficient disposal of unwanted animal life.
Although British animal protectionists in the past and present have been quick to condemn the treatment of dogs overseas as cruel and inhumane, Britain’s status as a colonial power meant that it has played a leading role in spreading dogopolis – and with it the idea that only certain types of dogs are acceptable in modern and civilized countries – around the globe. From Singapore to South Africa, British colonialists set up kennel clubs and put on dog shows, thereby promoting pedigree dogs as the pinnacle of dogdom. Dog experts were also quick to dish out advice to colonial British dog owners on how to adapt their animals to life in the tropics, issuing warnings about heat and local dogs. Animal protectionists also set up branches to combat, as they saw it, the cruelty of colonized people towards dogs and other creatures.
The British also exported their hatred of street dogs. This crystalized in their transformation of Indian street dogs into ‘pariah dogs.’ In the British colonialist imagination, these dogs were unsightly nuisances who spread rabies and who were living evidence of Indian degeneration and irrationality. The British complained bitterly about the everyday nuisances that ‘pariahs’ generated. Rendered sleepless due to the a ‘swarming’ mass of ‘vigorous-lunged pi’s[pariahs],’ a letter-writer with the pseudonym ‘Insomnia’ vented their frustration to the Times of India in October 1891: ‘the wretched creatures resemble each other so strongly in colour configuration that it is patent to the most unobservant eye that they are all descended from one patriarchal old lady.’ Unlike a beloved pet or a prized pedigree, ‘pariahs’ were a unseemly and unruly mob. The toleration of these dogs in India was treated as proof of the absurdities of Hindu and Jain religious beliefs, whose unconditional love for animals was seen as excessive, misguided, and a threat to public health. The British in India experimented with different ways of killing street dogs, including poisoning, shooting, and clubbing, and then brought the gospel of humane killing to the sub-continent. Electrocution was trialled in the British-run Civil and Military Station in Bangalore in 1925. The Rugby-based British Thomson-Houston Company proposed the project and supplied the equipment to the dog pound. Drawing on data on the electrocution of condemned humans in the United States, the company delivered a system whereby dogs were placed in a cage and, once the lid was secured, the simple press of a button delivered a current of 2,300 volts. W. H. Murphy, the electrical engineer of the Civil and Military Station in Bengaluru described it as a cheap and efficient system, which had dispatched 978 dogs between 24 November 1925 and 31 March 1926. Commenting on the development, a Chennai-based electrical engineer declared it the ‘most humane way’ of ‘destroying dogs’ as ‘there is no fear and trembling.’ Somewhat chillingly, however, he ‘noted that the only objectionable part of the process is the singeing of the dogs’ hair under the metal collar – which often occurs if the operator presses too long on the button switch.’ While some Indians welcomed the removal of street dogs, others actively resisted them. In Mumbai, strikes and protests met British attempts to cull dogs in 1832 and 1916.
The British did not succeed in eliminating street dogs in India and elsewhere: street dogs remain by far the most common type of dog on this planet. Dogopolis has not dominated human-canine relations on a global scale. Nonetheless, I hope that this short article encourages revision of the notion that Britain is an exceptional nation of dog lovers. On the whole, our love for dogs is very much conditional.