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On the methods of Battersea Dogs Home and (unfounded) fears of rabies.

Published in The Railway Review, 3 September 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.

As the traveller by the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway approaches Battersea Park he hears above the noise of the carriage wheels and the rattle of the engine an indescribable, and in these days of hydrophobia scare, a most alarming uproar. It is composed of barkings shrill and barkings deep, and mournful baying, mingled frequently with fitful outbursts of yells of anguish and howlings of despair, as though a multitude of unfortunate canine creatures, somewhere near at hand, were being barbarously tortured to the verge of madness. The dreadful sounds increase as the station is reached and the train brought to a standstill, and — especially if it be night time — it is with a thrill of dread that the nervous passenger notes the opening of the carriage door lest there should instantly ensue an inrush of the tormented animals desperately eager to escape from their persecutors. There is nothing to fear, however; the appalling din does not proceed from a number of excited dogs at large, but from some hundreds of dogs humanely housed and cared for on the premises of a society for the protection of lost and outcast tykes, who, but for this charitable arrangement, would be prowling, ill used and hungry, about the streets of the metropolis.

But though somewhat reassuring, the explanation is hardly likely to set completely at rest the first alarming impression. However well they may be secured and guarded, there is something exceedingly uncomfortable in the knowledge that such a vast collection of dangerous creatures are permitted to exist at all. It is a fact universally relied on, that these are exactly the kind of dogs most to be dreaded on account of the dreadful malady in question. Day after day one is accustomed to read that the spread of rabies is almost certainly due to the wandering at large of homeless animals, famished for food, kicked and cuffed, hunted and worried by vagabond boys, and objects of attack for those of their kind on whom the dread disease has already fallen.

The method adopted at the Home may be briefly explained as follows. A few stray dogs of the locality may be brought in by private individuals or constables on beat, but the greater number are conveyed to Battersea Asylum in vans. There are certain persons appointed by the police whose duty it is to make the round of all the metropolitan police stations, and collect the canine outcasts given into custody on the previous day. They are of all sorts and sizes, and in all conditions of health, and on their arrival at Battersea they are bestowed in comfortable straw-littered cages, a couple of score or so in each. There are amongst them dogs of worth, and which will be presently owned and taken away; and a much larger number of other dogs, whose dismal fate it will be to enjoy the hospitality of the Home for the prescribed space of seven days, and then to die a painless death by means of prussic acid. But during the first day, at all events, they are allowed to mix promiscuously, unmuzzled, and at liberty to bite each other if they have the inclination to do so. This as regards the great majority. In the event of an animal evincing suspicious symptoms, or of its being accompanied by a police certificate to the effect that it has already bitten some one, it is placed in a separate cage, and receives special attention, and its symptoms are narrowly watched. A nervous regard for the public health would suggest a briefer method of treatment for dogs proved guilty of biting; but the many years' experience of the officers at the Dogs' Refuge shows distinctly that such summary treatment of "suspects" is quite uncalled for. The reader may be of a different opinion; but first let him weigh well the following evidence, cheering as it is amazing, furnished by the thoroughly trustworthy returns of the Home in question.

Established on a small scale in 1860, it has up to the present time enjoyed seventeen years of increasing usefulness and prosperity, and in that long time upwards of 250,000 dogs have passed under the close inspection of the manager, who is a gentleman thoroughly well skilled in every disease that dogflesh is heir to; and he is prepared to vouch that out of that enormous number — derived, be it borne in mind, from sources most of all likely to be contaminated — he has met with not one solitary case of rabies. There is, probably, no single individual in Europe who has had a vaster field of observation, or such a promising number of subjects to study, and it would have been by no means surprising to have found, under the circumstances, that scarcely a week passed but that a dog unmistakably mad was brought under his notice; but there stands the fact declared by the superintendent and corroborated by the entire staff, that a mad dog was never yet seen on the premises. There have, of course, been savage dogs out of number — ill-conditioned curs, ever ready with a snarl and a vengeful snap at a leg or a hand. Even in the case of good-tempered dogs it is nothing surprising if, with their wonderful instinct, they make a frantic effort to make use of their teeth on the executioner when he is about to make his deadly grip on their neck, and they see the fatal phial in his fist; and there have, one way and another, been a very great many instances of dogbite amongst the attendants. But a judicious cauterising has served to counteract any possible ill effect; and no man on the establishment was ever the worse for such an accident, beyond the temporary inconvenience.

Again — still to quote from the superintendent's statement — it is by no means uncommon for dogs to be brought to the Home exhibiting symptoms which, to the inexperienced, are most alarming, but which rapidly subside under medicinal treatment. It seems that prowling dogs indiscriminately bolt almost anything to appease the pangs of hunger, and that the result is an agonising attack of congestion, accompanied with foaming at the mouth and glaring eyes, very easily mistaken by the ignorant for rabies. And if street dogs — who, if their fare is hard, have at least healthy organs of digestion — are subject to these fits, how much doubt can there be that house-fed, pampered pets, familiar with cakes and sweetmeats, are equally liable to the affliction?

It may be said that, after all, these statements, though they may be curious, are worth but little as bearing on the main questions — how to stamp out a terrible malady, the existence of which no sane man can question, or at least to lessen the number of its victims? But undoubtedly not a little good will be achieved if the fact can be made widely known that there is really much less reason for the nervous terror which at the present time exists amongst all classes than is commonly supposed, and that it is not every dog — if the testimony of the authority quoted is worth anything — not one dog in a score who grows excited, and whose jaws foam and who looks wild, who is mad and capable of infecting a person it bites with hydrophobia. Furthermore, if, as the gentleman in question opines, it is possible for an individual who has been harmlessly bitten to morbidly brood on the event until the dreadful symptoms of dog-madness are developed in him, it cannot be aught but beneficial to make it as widely as possible understood that such is the case. At all events, it should tend to relieve the anxiety of those who are haunted by the prevailing scare, and who shrink from every dog that approaches them, to learn that of two hundred thousand animals officially inspected not one was mad, and that, by the exercise of coolness and ordinary precaution, the bite of a dog that is not mad is little more to be dreaded than the scratch of a pin.