100 years ago, New York City declared war against polio and killed 72,000 cats (and 8,000 dogs)
September 22, 2016
By Annalisa Merelli
Polio was likened to a plague and the scapegoats were the city’s bugs and mice—even though the polio virus only infects humans, and can only be transmitted through oral contact with an infected person’s stool or saliva droplets.

This misconception lasted all the way up until the 1950s, when health authorities in cities across America would carry on campaigns spraying DDT to kill guiltless mosquitoes during the yearly summer polio epidemics that plagued the country.

But other innocent animals paid the price of the epidemics, too: thousands of cats and dogs were killed—sometimes as many as 3,700 a day—by, ironically, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (SPCA). On July 26, 1916, the New York Times reported that SPCA representatives said they had collected 80,000 pets—72,000 cats and 8,000 dogs—from owners afraid that they would help spread the disease.

“We have been receiving an average of 800 requests a day for our men to call for unwanted domestic pets, mostly cats, despite the statement issued by the Health Commissioner Emerson that cats do not carry the germs of the disease,” the SPCA’s superintendent told the Times.

People who owned pets let them onto the streets, where they turned into so-called “pirate cats,” roaming the streets and annoying or frightening residents. The SPCA would then be called to collect and kill them in their terrifyingly named “lethal chamber”—a room where they were put down through exposure to a deadly gas.

Some of the cats even became infamous criminals of sorts, like Wang, ”a tailless mauve cat from Formosa” that led a group of 50 to 100 pirate cats that haunted the “pious people” of the Upper West Side...