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Us Brits are known internationally for being crazy about our kitties and even dottier about our doggies. We have a reputation for being a nation of pet lovers but is this really the case? Reading A Home of their Own" a history of the world famous Battersea Dog and Cat Home and its ups and downs throughout its 150 years of existence made me seriously ponder this question.
The home was founded in 1860 by Mary Tealby, a very unconventional lady for her time (she was separated from he husband at a time when that was a real scandal) not in Battersea but across the river Thames in a stable in a mews in Holloway north London. It as originally known by the very morally victorian sounding " Home for Abandoned And Starving Dogs". Tracing its history from these humble beginnings Jenkins takes us on a journey through the Home's interesting and varied history from legal and financial crises, a move to the Home's present site and various stages of expansion through two World Wars, depression and recession to a modern home in 21 chapters and 350 pages.
This is a real gem of a book that would appeal to animals lovers, those interested in London's history and those generally interested in social history. I initially was attracted to the book due to its very cute cover. Who could reissue the drawing of a fluffy black and white bear cub of a pup poking out of the military like hate of one of the hone's keepers? I certainly could not. The cuteness continues inside especially on the chapter heading pages which show an adorable picture of one of the Home's many canine or feline residents looking big eyed and lost perhaps with a bandage round its paw. They are the type of photos that would melt the hearts of even the toughest blokes or Cruella Deville herself. I did wonder if the book could get a bit mawkish and at times resemble a literary version of "Animal hospital" or "Pet Rescue". For those that want that type of book Battersea do publish books dedicate to rescue animal's stories. Luckily for me Jenkins has nicely balanced the "aww "factor factor with a serious history that I found fascinating. I found the book extremely easy to read and the type of book I could not put down. Its popular history but rarely found it patronsisng.
The books concentrates heavily on the earlier history of the home with half of the book being taken up by the first 5o years. These chapters are low on individual animal stories, focusing more on the early founders of the Home and themes such as the rise of philanthropy, animal rights and attitudes to animals in Victorian Britain. I was especially interested in the attitudes to vivisection as I thought it was much more of a modern issue but there was resistance to it even in the early days of the home with no animal being sold to anyone who may wish to experiment on animals. The book may cover things like rabies outbreaks which were frequent in the home's early history to more recently "the Dangerous Dogs Act" and the problems it has brought the home with unpredictable animals through to the cruelty and neglect which has always been a problem in the home but never sensationalises it or goes into too graphic detail.
From the First World war onwards more individual stories about Battersea dogs do appear from those trained for military service, to thespian dog and more recently Red the escaping Lurcher. I did enjoy these stories especially when put in context with the changes in society from the problem of affording a new licence each year in the 1930s to the more recent a dog is for life campaigns with the rise in dogs arriving around about Christmas. More recently I heard on the radio the Hom is seeing a rise in admissions due to the rising cost of keeping a pet in today's recession.
BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE
The one thing I did find a bit dry was the ever constant expansion of the buildings and perhaps the home's finances. I know these are important to the development and the work of the home but they were the least interesting aspects to me.
The book is nicely illustrated with three sections of photographs, sketches and newspaper articles which were very useful to cross reference with the text. I found these pictures very evocative in bringing the home's past to life and of course there are plenty of cute pictures of the home's former residents. The only thing that would have added to the book would have been a map or two of the different sites, especially as the street where the original home was no longer exists.
I bought the paperback edition in Assda for about £4 though the recommenced price is £7.99. I am pleased to say all royalties go towards Battersea Dogs and Cats Home as every penny counts when it comes to charity.
So are we a nation of pet lovers? I would like to think so as the appeal of this book and others like it is widespread. Look at the success of cute puppy and kittens calendars. However if we were truly a nation of animal lovers this book would not exist, nor would the home in its present form. In an ideal world the only residents would be dogs that needed to be re homed because of a tragic loss of an owner. Instead in the real world the Battersea kennels are still full to capacity. Hopefully there shall be little reason to write a second volume of this book.