How did animal adoption work in the UK in the 1960s & 1970s?
July 25, 2020 2:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a short story set in Kent, UK in the late 60s/early 70s. The main character needs to acquire a series of dogs as a plot point. I have no knowledge of how this worked over here in the 60s/70s. Does anyone have sources they can point me to or relevant personal experiences?

It doesn't especially matter how the character comes by these dogs, only that it has to be plausible for the location and the time period. My short story jam at the moment is historical fiction in UK settings with subtle veins of fantasy/magical realism and explicit queer themes. I like to include small period-specific details, both to add to the immersion and to avoid jarring readers familiar with the period by incorporating elements that are implausible.

I'm decent at web searches and most of the time this gets me as much flavour as I need without a ton of research, but I'm stumped on this one as searches for "animal adoption UK 1960s" etc. come up with either stories about human adoption in that era or sites offering animal adoption now, in 2020. The online "histories" of UK-based animal charities like the Blue Cross or the RSPCA are extremely scanty on details (e.g. the Blue Cross timeline has facts like "1991: Our new head office in Burford, Oxfordshire, was officially opened." but not social history related info like how they practically got the work done in the past).

I'm open to the character acquiring these dogs by word of mouth or from friends/family/neighbours who have died or can no longer care for them, from some kind of formal animal adoption centre (but I'm really struggling to find concrete info that this kind of place existed or provided this service in the period when my story is set), from a local veterinarian etc. I would prefer the character not to buy the dogs (or at least not all of them) from a breeder; it's possible if it's the only way to make the plot work but it's not my first choice.

My suspicion based on how family members and other people I've known from that generation is that animal adoption and ownership was more casual overall in the mid-twentieth century than it is now, but any sources or anecdotes about how people in the 60s and 70s got their dogs would be very much appreciated
posted by terretu to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
I wonder if the James Herriot stories might be a useful place to research?
posted by freethefeet at 3:38 AM on July 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

There’s a mention here of one of the Downing Street cats (Wilberforce) coming from an RSPCA Branch in Hounslow in 1974, and Battersea’s has been around since 1860.

On the other hand even in the 80’s (in Ireland rather than the UK), we would have got our cats and dogs from word of mouth - my brother’s friend’s cat had kittens, or via a friend of a friend. (Two kittens at different points more or less decided themselves that they were going to be adopted by us too.) it was definitely a lot more casual than now.
posted by scorbet at 3:38 AM on July 25, 2020

In the East Midlands where I grew up in the 60s and 70s there was a RSPCA dog shelter in the town where people could adopt dogs.
posted by essexjan at 3:47 AM on July 25, 2020

Trigger warning for animal abuse

Prior to the 1970's all large well organized animal shelters were kill shelters. Spaying was far from universal so they got exponentially more animals than they could house and would have a scheduled period when they euthanized all the animals they did not believe they could immediately place, plus one or two shelter mascots they had fallen in love with and were holding out on. They often euthanized most of their animals within hours of intake because they did not pass the screening. No-kill shelters were mainly operated by independent operators and since they could fill up within minutes they were either not accepting animals or else they were animal hoarding situations.

You can look at a figure like 90 percent of healthy animals were put down. Kittens came in by the basket full, anyone adopting was likely to want a kitten, so adult cats got put down, minor issues like fleas were enough to divert an animal being intaked into the kill stream. Not to say you couldn't get an sedate older cat. If you asked for one they would gladly put one aside for you.

Adoptions were on site, and quick. You filled out a form, you got to inspect the animals currently there, you made your choice and you probably paid a small fee and then off you went with no follow up whatsoever and the staff at the shelter glad that at least one more animal had a home and would not not be put down in the Friday cull.

If you were to present yourself to the same shelter every week they would start to be suspicious that you were collecting animals for vivisection, which was the big worry at the time - it was believed that vivisectionists either training to be veterinarians or doing research on animal subjects would dissect the animals alive and while conscious. This meant that many people preferred to abandon animals in hopes that someone would adopt them from being stray. There was usually a robust program of rounding up stray animals to bring to the shelter, and in many places where the animals multiplied local businesses did the killing themselves. For example at the pulp mill when the number of cats got too high they got as many as they could into the bleaching area where they would die during the processing. The pulp mill (Canada, Saint John) did this every few months. Places like outdoor markets might put out poison for strays the same way they did for rats. It was not unusual for people working at the market who were soft hearted to desperately gather some of them up and take them to the shelter in hopes of enhancing their chances of survival.

As far as I know there was no cross checking between shelters - this was before computers and I do not know when the requirement to present an ID came in, so you are talking masses of white mimeographed forms, filled out in pen and sorted by date, kept somewhere in the office. Different locations would potentially have created their own cross referencing system but that would have required someone at a typewriter typing the data in to a list that could not be edited alphabetically to include more data on a second occasion. Cross checking with another shelter I suspect would only happen if you got the same person coming back and coming back and trigger the shelter workers' suspicions that they were a vivisectionist. Then they might have telephoned another shelter to check if they had seen the same individual.

It was encouraged to adopt a pet for your children, as again that got more of the pets out of the shelter, so early December was was the time when animals were most likely to be adopted. Many people only adopted males to prevent having to deal with litters and getting animals spayed was not the norm. For many animal diseases, good and loving owners put their pets down instead of treating them as they were considered untreatable. Rhino and distemper were two diseases where a consulting vet would advise against making the animals suffer longer.

So if your fictional character were to space out the times when they came and got dogs and visit more than one shelter and if recognized have a glib cover story to explain the second or third or fourth pet they would have no trouble getting an new animal. "Boxer is so great, I am getting another dog to be his companion while I am at work" "Boxer and Tommy got the distemper. I had to put them down. I am lost without a dog around the place." "Molly needs a companion and your dogs are such good dogs!" If the person provided a backstory like this the only objection raised might be that distemper is highly contagious and they should wait three months before replacing Boxer and Tommy.

Disclaimer: My information comes from being alive and around shelters during this period in Canada and the US. Things may have been different in Britain but the facts on the ground were pretty much the same. The sexual revolution was based on birth control and that changed the face of animal ownership as well as human sexual and social behaviour. Until they began to have any hope of controlling the enormous number of births, they were working on making euthanasia more humane.

They were not far removed from the day when home euthanasia was a thing, and mothers had the grim job of drowning this season's litter in a lidded bucket. Car exhausts were also used. It was still common for people to find sacks of drowned animals in the streams and creeks. This meant that where ever you worked or went to school there would be people asking around, "Know anyone who wants a kitten?" and every bulletin board had several notes posted describing how gorgeous or deserving or desperate their animals were. Think churches, libraries and super markets for locations where there would be a bulletin board with multiple notices of animals on offer.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:25 AM on July 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

And of course pet stores sold animals cheaply with no screening whatsoever. They used to have cages with the litters in them, and kids (who were free range then and could wander into friendly stores as they pleased) would be coming in to look at the animals. They generally only let a kid handle and play with the animal if there was an adult in tow to establish that they were paying customers. But if a ten year old had three pounds and asked to buy a little black puppy the money crossed the counter and no record was kept. The clerk might very well ask if the kid had permission to purchase - but if the kid got sent back by an angry parent they could accept the puppy back, with or without refunding the money and pop it right back into the cage with its litter mates to look for a new owner.

Puppy mills were only a thing for really desirable breeds. The pet store was probably being given the animals by whoever owned their mother. Contacting a pet store and asking if they would take your puppies when they were ready to go was one of the was that savvy people found homes for their litters.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:31 AM on July 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if your character is malign and only wants adult animals it would be ridiculously easy to steal a dog. Well socialized dogs were sometimes semi trained to stay in the semi-fenced yard. If they got out for a few hours nobody minded. (If they were at all aggressive it was another story.) So finding a dog on the heath that was out playing and could be lured away would not be difficult.

A great many people took their dogs places with them and when they wanted to go inside tied the dog up outside using its leash. I got bitten by a dog tied to the railing of the library stairs when I was about six or seven. I went up to pet it and it lunged and grabbed me by the throat, just a warning grab that barely broke the skin. The women who owned the dog was informed that her dog had bitten a child, grabbed the dog and ran home with it. My mother complained, the police interviewed the librarian who gave her name and addy and the police interviewed the woman and gave her a verbal caution. Again this was Canada, but the practice of tying the dog outside was universal across Canada and the US and likely universal in the UK.

We had friends around 1972, Robin and Tony who tied an Irish Setter up outside a store, went in and came out to find her gone. Very likely she was so beautiful that someone stole her on impulse. They immediately contacted all the shelters to report her lost and stolen so that the shelters would have had an eye out for her if she was brought in, but if she ended up stray it might have been some weeks later before she turned up at one of the shelters, and where they likely took down multiple reports of lost animals every day a delay of six weeks between the report and the dog's arrival at the shelter might mean no connection was made and definitely would mean no connection made if the animal was nondescript. If you were reporting something like a tabby cat you were advised to call the shelters every day or every week until you gave up the lost pet are irretrievable. The shelter here was likely to be quite unfriendly to you if you reported the lost dog as not having had her collar and tags.

Another factor to keep in mind for period authenticity was the dog dirt everywhere. Good dog owners trained their animals to defecate in the street just beside the sidewalk, where the gutter water ran and it could be cleaned up by the street cleaner, but they were the absolute minority. If the dog squatted in the middle of the sidewalk they were more likely to just wait until it was done and walk away leaving it, or perhaps tug the leash to try to get the dog to move over three feet onto someone else's front lawn. No effort whatsoever was made to pick it up, only to keep it off the sidewalk. Dog dirt was found everywhere there was grass and often in prodigious quantities.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:52 AM on July 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

In 1967 in the US we got our dog and cat from an ad in the classified section of the local newspaper. Families would advertise if they had a litter to give or sell, or like our case if they were moving and could not take their adult pets with them. Check newspaper archives to verify if this was true for your locale. If so it would just cost your character a dime for the paper and another dime for a phone call and they can have as many dogs as they like.
posted by CathyG at 6:40 AM on July 25, 2020

Our family acquired a dog in the mid-'70s (south Wales). The dog was a juvenile stray who had latched on to the coal (delivery) man while he was doing his rounds. He asked around to see if anyone was looking for a dog, and we were.
posted by misteraitch at 8:11 AM on July 25, 2020

Adoption wasn't a term that would have been used at the time with regards to acquiring animals of any sort, so if you're striving for historical accuracy (or even better online searching) strike it from you vocabulary for this story.
posted by sardonyx at 8:16 AM on July 25, 2020

Thanks for the pointers, particularly from folks with UK-specific knowledge. And rest assured that the language I use to describe this question is different from the way I'll be framing it in the story.
posted by terretu at 8:17 AM on July 25, 2020

I wonder whether it might be worth an email to some of the more long-established charities, such as the RSPCA or the Dog's Trust (formerly the National Canine Defence League), asking about their approach to rehoming in the relevant time period.

I was a child in the 1970s and definitely remember dogs roaming around freely, so the chance for them to procreate / get lost was always there. I recall hearing people talking about someone's female dog having had a litter of pups and did anyone want one (I assume neutering was less common then) so there would presumably have been a lot of word-of-mouth acquisitions, and when we (briefly) owned a dog in the late 1960s, I believe he came to us via someone who had bred their pet (for the purpose of selling the purebred offspring) literally in their back garden.

And of course there was the whole local council dog warden / license issue, and the police involvement in taking strays off the street.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:32 AM on July 25, 2020

Check this out! British Pathé short film from 1968 called Stray Dog - short but sweet film of a stray dog being taken to the National Canine Defence League kennels in Watford, with some chat about the kennel's processes. Contrary to Jane the Brown's experience in the US/Canada, it says they will never put an animal down just because it doesn't have a home. Not hugely detailed but it does talk about them taking care to match dogs well with their new owners etc.

Just to retrace the steps that led me to it, in case they're also of use: Having grown up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s the first thing this question sparked in me was memory of the then-new campaign, A Dog is for Life, Not Just for Christmas - googling that indicates it was launched in 1978 by what was then the National Canine Defence League, now the Dogs Trust. The Dogs Trust history page is pretty scant information-wise, but it does include a slideshow of pages from their Annual Report over the decades, including an intriguing story from 1969 about "the introduction of 'Beauty' to pensioner Mrs Tucker from Fulham", which might give you some context if you can actually find a way to enhance the small print.

This deck of slides refers rather cryptically to the NCDL having a "series of crises" in the 1960s-1980s, though doesn't elaborate.

Related googling makes me wonder if your character might encounter Camberley Kate or her fictional equivalent.

Googling more around the NCDL sounds like it might be fruitful.
posted by penguin pie at 9:38 AM on July 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Also: More for general interest as they're mostly before your time period, but if you go to the British Pathé YouTube channel and search the word 'canine', the results are overwhelmingly awesome.
posted by penguin pie at 9:48 AM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not in the UK but I did grow up in the 60s and 70s and didn't see this mentioned yet. Perhaps it's US specific. It was very common to see people, even children, sitting outside the entrances to grocery stores with a box of puppies or kittens that needed homes.
posted by QuakerMel at 9:22 AM on July 27, 2020

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