A beastly tale from World War II
Mukund Padmanabhan Mukund Padmanabhan | 24 Dec, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ON APRIL 14th, 1942, a team of the Malabar Special Police (MSP) suddenly turned up at the Madras Zoo. The orders were clear: shoot all the ‘dangerous’ animals dead. Used as a paramilitary force for large operations—for example, to crush the Moplah rebellion in 1921 and put down the Nizam’s private militia (the Razakars) in 1947—this was an easy but most unusual assignment. The MSP carried it out with customary efficiency. Itemised animals such as lions, tigers, panthers, bears, poisonous snakes were located and shot dead. All it took was a few blood-spattered minutes.
The kill order was carried out to avert the risk of dangerous animals breaking free and preying on Madras residents in the event that Japanese bombs destroyed the zoo and its enclosures. It was issued at a time when the colonial government believed that a Japanese attack, in the form of a full-fledged invasion, was imminent. Of course, no such thing happened. The feared Japanese bombers never showed up over the city. And military intelligence to the effect that a spearhead of two divisions (out of a total of 10) would land anywhere between north of Madras city and southern extremities of the Presidency turned out to be a piece of alarmist fiction. (Japan’s only wartime brush with Madras occurred one and a half years later, when a single reconnaissance aircraft dropped a few bombs, causing slight damage).
The thought that zoo animals should be killed to prevent their running loose and harming people in the event of a bomb attack seems bizarre enough. Given that there was no aerial attack, the story of their slaughter assumes an even more eccentric twist, a tale of pointless and tragic futility. I suspect this is why my friend Ruchir Joshi called me up a couple of years ago to check whether the incident actually took place. It receives a mention in his new novel, now done and dusted, but awaiting publication. The zoo story also almost invariably earns a couple of lines or more in academic accounts on India and World War II, including historian Indivar Kamtekar’s formative and razor-sharp essay, The Shiver of 1942. It is not hard to see why. At one level, it is an irresistibly bizarre story. At another, it is a compelling example of the extent of the prevailing panic in Madras on the eve of a Japanese assault that never occurred. As Kamtekar points out, while histories are about what happened, they can also be written around those that never did.
The panic over Japan of course was not limited to Madras alone. It was much more widespread, and particularly acute in cities and towns on both sides of the coast. But this is another story for another time. As for Madras, it regarded itself as particularly vulnerable to Japan’s so-called hegemonic designs. The apprehension that the city would be targeted grew after Japan attacked Malaya from the north in December 1941, and then proceeded to sweep southwards to occupy the country and force Allied troops to retreat to Singapore. The fabled British “fortress” crumbled quickly, forced into a quick and humiliating surrender on February 15th, 1942.
After Singapore’s fall, the events that seemed to presage an attack on India followed thick and fast. In March, Japan took the Andaman & Nicobar Islands without so much as a murmur of resistance. In early April, a sizeable fleet, made up of vessels that participated in the carnage at Pearl Harbour, entered the Indian Ocean. In Ceylon, Colombo and Trincomalee were bombed, a number of British aircraft destroyed, and a venerable aircraft carrier (HMS Hermes) and her escort ship (Vampire) sunk, killing over 300 people. Meanwhile, a second taskforce of warships was in the Bay of Bengal, launching planes from a light aircraft carrier (Ryujo) to bomb Vizagapatam (now Visakhapatnam) and Cocanada (Kakinada), while picking off merchant ships (as many as 20 of them) with a cavalier abandon.
The thought that zoo animals should be killed to prevent their running loose and harming people in the event of a bomb attack seems bizarre enough. Given that there was no aerial attack, the story of their slaughter assumes an even more eccentric twist
In this climate of alarm, on April 7th, an ancient and hulking Atalanta, reported sighting three Japanese aircraft off the coast of Madras during a routine reconnaissance flight. And on April 10th, the Madras Presidency’s Governor, Sir Arthur Hope, was informed by the Southern Command that a large Japanese force was on its way to South India. It could arrive any day after the 15th, the military intelligence said. This led the government to issue a communique asking people whose presence in Madras is not essential to leave the city over the next few days. Of course, people had begun fleeing Madras in fits and starts for inland towns and villages much earlier, but the communique triggered a fresh exodus. The Chief Secretary of Madras, S Ramamurthy estimated that in the six days running up to April 14th, two lakh people had fled the city. (In all, at least 75 per cent of Madras’ population left their homes, leaving it an empty shell.)
On April 13th, the government ordered almost its entire machinery to move from Madras to towns in the Presidency’s interior. The essential sections of the Secretariat were moved to Madanapalle, now in Andhra Pradesh. The so-called non-essential parts were ordered to relocate to Ootacamund (Ooty). The office of the Inspector-General of Police proceeded to Vellore and the Board of Revenue to Salem, and Public Works was shifted to Vellore and Mettur. The High Court with its 16 judges and large numbers of clerical staff was split into two sections; the larger one with the Chief Justice moved to Coimbatore and the smaller section, to serve the “Telugu districts”, went to Anantapur.
UNDERSTANDABLY, MADRAS was plunged into chaos the following day (April 14th) with people thronging the railway stations and fleeing inland via clogged roads. It was a day when O Pulla Reddi, the Commissioner of the Madras Corporation, happened to be in the Secretariat on some municipal work. There, he was shown a note by one of Governor Hope’s advisors. The instruction was to destroy all the dangerous animals in the Zoo immediately. “I returned to the office, thought over the matter and considerably regretted I had to make a decision of that kind,” said the man who headed the India’s oldest municipal corporation (which boasts of being the world’s second oldest such civic body after the one in London). While the danger that was apprehended “blew off”, what if it were otherwise, he wondered. “If an emergency had happened and the wild animals had got loose and the reptiles had got into our trenches, then people would have demanded my head on a charger.”
Reddi clearly thought that the killing of the zoo animals was heartless and unnecessary. But being the good bureaucrat that he was, he defended his decision before the Corporation’s councillors. He had no choice but to obey the order he declared, something that Mayor Chakkarai Chetty concurred with. At the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, Reddi took responsibility for what he did by saying he acted out of his discretion and in the interests of the city.
It is a forgotten truth that bombs, zoos and animals were very much a part of public deliberation during World War II. And there were precedents and striking parallels in other European cities
In his autobiography Autumn Leaves, written well after retirement, Reddi was more candid and much more critical about the way the British handled the evacuation as well as the shooting of the animals. On that day, he recalled judges ran helter-skelter and the secretariat had begun moving en masse to Ootacamund. Sir George Boag, Governor Hope’s First Adviser, had instructed him that only two officers were to be left behind, Police Commissioner Lionel Gasson and Reddi himself. It was one thing to be told that no streetlights would be allowed to burn and that all electric lights at homes be switched off. But, “worst of it all, I was asked to have all the lions, tigers, panthers, polar bears, snakes and such dangerous animals in the zoo shot in a few minutes.” Reddi asked Boag what he should do in the event the Japanese did land the next morning. Boag replied: “I have no time to discuss details with you. I have to catch the Blue Mountain Express in a few minutes. You can do what you like.” Then, Sir George proceeded to hop on the overnight train, which incidentally continues to ply today, the last leg up the hills from Mettupalayam, a slow and achingly beautiful journey on a narrow-gauge track.
Of April 14th, 1942, Reddi would remark wryly: “Everybody seemed to have lost his head.”
THE IDEA THAT dangerous zoo animals could be turned perilously loose on the citizenry seems ludicrous now. As with the evacuation order itself, accounts of the killing at Madras Zoo are written up as if it was a bizarre idea conceived in alarmist haste by Governor Hope and his advisors. One that was born in a panicked city headed by a terrified colonial administration. And one that died with it.
There is no denying that the Madras government panicked. Madras was the city where a formal communique was issued asking its residents to leave. It was also the only city which killed its zoo animals. But there is a background to its zoo story that rarely, if ever, receives a mention. It is a forgotten truth that bombs, zoos and animals were very much a part of public deliberation during World War II. And there were precedents and striking parallels in other European cities.
In Britain, animals were among the first casualties of World War II. The mass slaughter happened before the bombings began and, quite incredibly, these casualties were household pets, mainly cats and dogs. Hilda Kean, author of The Great Dog and Cat Massacre, estimates that in London alone, a staggering 400,000 to 750,000 cats and dogs were killed in the first week of the War in early September 1939.
Some were euthanised, some shot, and others handed over to be exterminated by gassing. People queued before animal shelters and animal welfare charities (not to be confused with “homes”) with exemplary British patience to have their pets put to sleep. In one shelter in north London, the queue was half a mile long.
The wholesale slaughter was fuelled by fears and rumours that mass bombings with gas and explosives would follow the outbreak of war. People convinced themselves it was the kindest thing to do in the event the animals were forced to run wild, suffer from injuries and were unable to feed themselves.
The British government, worried about food shortages and splitting rations with pets, did its bit to advance the Great Pet Massacre. Place your pets with people in the countryside, the Ministry of Home Security urged, in apparent concern. But it came with a dark rider. If you cannot, “the kindest thing is to have them destroyed.” After a week of frenzied killing, people began to question themselves. “Pet lovers blinked,” writes Kean. “What have we done. The sky had not darkened with bombers….Where now were the faithful Bonzo and little Oo-Oo? Reduced to fertilizer in Sugar House Lane or interred in some cold field in Ilford.”
Given the scale of this extermination at home, it is hardly surprising that zoo animals were also not spared. The London Zoo, founded in 1828 in Regent’s Park, was closed on the day war was declared on September 3rd, 1939. But an entire year earlier, it had already drawn up a blueprint of what to do in the event of war. The precautionary measures drawn up included the immediate killing of all poisonous snakes and spiders. Valuable animals would be shifted to the zoo at Whipsnade, north-west of London and the stock of others would be gradually reduced.
The London Zoo carried out the plan it had prepared to the letter, even as the Overseer MacDonald and Keeper Austin got down to re-brush their knowledge of the working of a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle to stop the animals dead in their tracks in the event of a breakout. When war seemed inevitable with news of the German invasion of Poland (September 1st), the first thing zoo director Julian Huxley did was to kill the poisonous snakes, which he described as sad as some of them were so rare and beautiful. The fate of the other snakes, including pythons and anacondas, would be sealed two days later, when Britain formally declared war. A black widow spider was beheaded. Saltwater fish were killed while freshwater species were released in a pond. Later, others would join the death list such as crocodiles from the Nile, alligators from America and two lion cubs.
On April 10th, 1942, the Madras Presidency’s governor, Sir Arthur Hope, was informed by the Southern Command that a large Japanese force was on its way to South India
Pandas, elephants, orangutans, chimpanzees and an ostrich were transferred to Whipsnade north-west of London for their safety. But here, a young African bull elephant Jumbo II was shot dead to make room for the ones dispatched from Regent’s Park. The Daily Telegraph described the killing rather woodenly as a result of “housing difficulties”. At the zoo in Southend, all the lions were exterminated. In time, all the remaining animals were disposed of and the zoo shut down.
In distant Australia, three lions, a leopard and a tiger that belonged to a circus in Sydney were shot as a part of Air Raid Precaution (ARP) measures. The circus owner was unable to shift the animals further inland as required, because he didn’t have enough fuel as a result of petrol restrictions.
KILLING ZOO ANIMALS was not a peculiarly Allied affliction. In the first week of the German invasion of Poland, the Warsaw Zoological Garden was bombed. One bomb destroyed the moats and barriers of the polar bear enclosure. A Polish platoon discovered the freed animals, bloodied and circling their old haunt. They were swiftly shot. Afraid that lions, tigers and other dangerous animals may escape, the soldiers went on to kill the more aggressive ones. Some for slaughtered for meat and others put down with bullets.
The worst came a couple of weeks later, on September 25th, 1939, or ‘Bloody Monday’. The Luftwaffe flew about 1,150 sorties dropping unimaginably large quantities of high explosives and incendiary bombs, bent on turning Warsaw into a seething furnace. The zoo was devastated. This is how Diane Ackerman, who wrote The Zookeeper’s Wife, a true account of how Jan Zabinski and his partner Antonina Zabinski sheltered persecuted Jews in the zoo’s enclosures, described the damage. “Glass and metal shards mutilated skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed. As parrots spiraled upwards like Aztec Gods and then plummeted straight down”, two giraffes lay dead on the ground, their legs twisted, while other animals in cages were “engulfed in rolling waves of flame”.
As people watched from their windows, seals slipped into the Vistula river, while camels, llamas, ostriches, wolves, foxes and anteaters wandered around aimlessly or looked for places to hide. The zoo favourite, the infant Tuzinka, the first elephant born in Poland, survived and was carted off to the Reich. Her father however did not escape. He was one of the animals shot by Polish armymen during the first wave of the air attacks three weeks earlier.
Two years later, in September 1941, the Berlin Zoo was struck by British bombers, setting fire to the cattle stables and damaging the surroundings.
Although repairs were undertaken, it appears that the Nazi authorities had made some “nebulous plans and promises” to evacuate the animals. But they were not followed through. The real damage occurred in 1943 when, on November 22nd and 23rd, the RAF conducted a massive air raid on the western part of Berlin. Other raids followed soon after and “not a single habitable house” stood in the streets surrounding the zoo. A number of animals had been temporarily removed from Berlin to other zoos in places such as Frankfurt, Halle and Cologne. But the remaining ones didn’t escape the blitz.
Animals that were saved from the carnage included elephants, giraffes, baboons, ostriches, emus, deer and birds. In May, the plan to shift these valuable and non-dangerous animals to Erode was finally put into effect
In 15 minutes on the evening of November 22nd, 30 per cent of the zoo’s animals were killed. Four crocodiles were found dead on the street, possibly flung as a result of the explosions. “Some of the potentially dangerous animals, such as jaguars, panthers, or gorillas that managed to escape their bombed out and burning enclosures were chased down the street and shot dead,” notes Kevin Prenger in War Zone Zoo. But rumours persisted about elephants stampeding through the streets and tigers prowling through the ruins.
Many animals died, including a black rhino, a sea elephant, two hippos, a couple of giraffes and about half the antelopes and deer. Many found themselves on the dining table. Crocodile tails were a rage; bear ham and sausage became delicacies; and deer, antelope and buffalo provided hundreds of meals. “We had meat coming out of our ears,” recalled Lutz Heck, who grew up in the Berlin zoo, and succeeded his father as director.
In the elephant enclosure, only the bull Siam survived. Every member of his harem had been annihilated.
Back to Madras, and its zoo. Founded in 1855, the country’s oldest zoo had moved to the sprawling People’s Park in 1863, situated in the heart of the city. The red-bricked arcaded Madras Railway Station, with its imposing central clock-tower lay just across the narrow Cooum river. And Ripon Building, the seat of the Madras Corporation, full of Greek pretensions and shining in Ionic white, lay just in front of it. There was a reason to believe the zoo was located in a place that would be targeted by the Japanese. Also, that it would be very vulnerable if Japanese bombers repeated the kind of destruction they wreaked on Rangoon or Singapore. (The zoo has since moved to the city’s outskirts.)
Since January 1942, three months before the animals were shot, the Madras Corporation was trying to have select denizens of the zoo shifted to safer towns. Some of these animals were classified as dangerous, others as valuable. Commissioner Pulla Reddi had written letters to people in places as far-flung as Mysore, Hyderabad, Bhopal and Calcutta requesting that these two categories of animals be accommodated. But the other municipalities and zoos stalled him, either failing to reply to his letters or saying—in the time-honoured bureaucratic tradition—that his request was under consideration.
By the first week of April, the other cities had made it more or less clear they could not receive the animals. Having drawn a blank outside the Presidency, Reddi looked within. He packed off the zoo superintendent to Erode, about 400 kilometres away, where he had heard the animals could be housed.
Indeed, they could. But there was a problem. By then, the Railways could not make the wagons available for immediate transport to Erode. Reddi records that this was for “obvious reasons” without spelling out what they were. But it is likely that by then the Railways were too caught up with transporting people fleeing the city to bother with making special arrangements for animals.
With no solution in sight, the ‘dangerous’ animals remained where there were, only to be killed. Later, the Corporation set the value of the animals shot at ₹ 4,538, though it is not clear how this number was arrived at. Animals that were saved from the carnage included elephants, giraffes, baboons, ostriches, emus, deer and birds. In May, the plan to shift these valuable and non-dangerous animals to Erode was finally put into effect. But by then, there was no threat from Japan, either real or imaginary.
At the Council of the Madras Corporation, there was a small exchange that reflected the politics of the times. Having listened to Reddi’s explanation for why the animals were killed, Councillor N Sivaraj asked him whether this was against the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). Reddi’s tart reply was that this question should be put to a sanyasi and not him. But Sivaraj went on to answer his own question. It was indeed against the principle, he said.
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