A guest blog by Eva Plach, Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada

In the contemporary west few people are particularly concerned about contracting rabies. But anxiety about rabies wasn’t always so low. Rabies is one of the oldest known viral infections, and throughout the centuries has also been one of the most feared. This is because once rabies is contracted (it is almost always transmitted through a bite from an infected animal) and the infection reaches the brain, death is inevitable. This grim reality changed only a little more than a century ago, in 1885, when the French chemist Louis Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine. If administered after infection but before the onset of symptoms, the Pasteur vaccine proved successful in preventing death.[i]

While the Pasteur vaccine led to lower rabies mortality rates, states nevertheless remained vigilant against potentially rabid animals. This continued vigilance reflected the seriousness of the disease, clearly. But fear of rabies was exacerbated by the fact that the infection was transmitted not by lice or rats, but primarily by dogs, the best loved domesticated animals. Dogs lived in close proximity to humans, and increasingly inside the urban middle-class home itself.[ii] Moreover it was often difficult to determine which dog was rabid and which was simply acting strangely and exhibiting a non-rabies-related aggression. In addition, the incubation period for rabies was variable, from days to months, and depended, in part, on the location and the severity of the bite; this added to the sense of unpredictability surrounding the disease. Perhaps most frighteningly, in attacking a person’s mental faculties – in reducing humans to an animalistic state – rabies unsettled the very meaning of what it meant to be human.[iii]

In 1920s Poland – where deaths from rabies averaged 31 a year – the government adopted an aggressive rabies control strategy that called for mandatory muzzling, leashing and/or licensing of dogs; the regular mass culling of strays; plus the killing of any dog suspected to have been in the presence of a rabid or even just a potentially rabid dog. In the event of a confirmed case of rabies in a dog, and in an effort to prevent a major rabies outbreak, municipal authorities could declare an “area of contagion”; all dogs in the demarcated area would be killed regardless of whether or not they had been in contact with the infected animal.[iv] This meant that even the pampered lapdog of a Warsaw lady who rarely left her lady’s side was subject to death if she was unlucky enough simply to live in the contagion area.

It was aspects of these strategies that Poland’s organized animal protection movement called cruel, misguided and irrational.[v] The President of the Polish League for the Friends of Animals, Romuald Mandelski, argued that the state’s rabies control strategy left little opportunity to differentiate between good and bad dogs – and good and bad dog owners. Animal protectionists assumed (unjustly of course) that the dogs of certain kinds of people – the mutts of the rural and urban poor – were more likely than the well-loved purebreds of the urban middle classes to carry and spread disease.[vi] In failing to differentiate between dog types and dog owners, contemporary state-led responses to rabies threats, from animal protectionists’ perspective, symbolically breached the distinction between social classes in Poland.

Rabid Dog

Jan Makowski, O wściekliźnie (Warsaw: Księgarnia Polska, 1908)


The dog catcher himself was a tangible symbol of this breach when he entered a posh Warsaw neighbourhood, ripped a well-bred dog from its home, and then stuffed the animal into the back of a crowded vehicle alongside common street curs. Protectionists described dog catchers as cruel brutes, as working-class men who perversely enjoyed beating dogs to death with clubs and poles and who were immune to the pleading cries of animals and owners.[vii] Scenes like this might be expected “in Bolshevik Russia, in uncultured countries”, one incensed observer of a dog culling wrote in the animal welfare press, but was astonishing in a nation that “in terms of civilization and culture occupies – or at least should occupy – one of the leading places.”[viii]

As an alternative to the roundups and mass cullings during rabies outbreaks, protectionists generally favoured expanded quarantine programs and case-by-case determinations of dogs’ fates; similar strategies were already practiced in places like Germany, for instance.[ix] The state countered that quarantines were both too expensive and time-consuming, and thus the mass culling approach continued throughout the interwar period.

In the end newly developed prophylactic rabies vaccination programs  brought the disease under control throughout continental Europe, Poland included, in the decade after World War Two.[x] Today rabies no longer occupies the same place in the public imagination as it once did and is considered a low public health threat on the continent. Worldwide, however, an astonishing number of people – approximately 55,000 – still die from the disease every year. These deaths occur mostly in the developing world where state infrastructures and resources, or political will, are inadequate to deal with the problem. Dog bites still account for the vast majority of rabies deaths.[xi]

So why should we be interested in rabies policies – and animal protectionists’ analysis of rabies policies – as they existed almost a century ago in a country on the eastern borders of Europe? In the broadest sense, such explorations show us why “animals are good to think with”. In their understandings of contagion and their criticisms of contemporary rabies strategies, animal protectionists reinforced stereotypes held by the educated classes (from which they largely came) about the brutality and ignorance of the urban poor and the peasantry. It was these groups which least exemplified the principles of rationality, empathy, and humanity that animal welfare campaigners valued. We see, then, that interwar animal welfare activism was as much about people, the nation and the idea of “civilization” as it was about the animals themselves.

Moreover, studying a century-old debate about rabies can help us think about the way we talk about “new” zoonotic diseases, like Mad Cow or Avian influenza.[xii] Zoonotic diseases compel us to reconsider the very lines that separate human from non-human animals, to interrogate who or what causes disease, and to question the role that humans play in disease transmission. They also encourage us to think about the ongoing tension that exists between an imperative to do everything possible to protect human health, on the one hand, and on the other, to moderate this obligation with a commitment to some historically contingent definition of acceptable risk and animal welfare.


Eva Plach is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. She focuses on the history of the Polish Second Republic (1918-39), and most recently has been exploring various aspects of animal welfare activism in Poland during the 1920s and 1930s. Check out her webpage here.

[i] Joanna Swabe, Animals, Disease and Human Society: Human-Animal Relations and the Rise of Veterinary Medicine (London: Routledge, 1999) 109-112.

[ii] On rabid dogs violating the notion of home as haven, see: Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir  (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994) ch. 6.

[iii] Joanna Swabe, “”Folklore, Perceptions, Science and Rabies Prevention and Control”, in Historical Perspective of Rabies in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, eds. A.A. King et al. (Paris: World Organization for Animal Health, 2004), 312.

[iv] “Rozporządzenie Prezydenta Rzeczypospolitej z dnia 22 sierpnia 1927 r. o zwalczaniu zaraźliwych choròb zwierzęcych”, Dziennik Ustaw Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, 1927, Nr. 77, Poz. 673, Art. 67-69.

[v] For an introduction to animal welfare activism in interwar Poland, see Eva Plach, “The Animal Welfare Movement in Interwar Poland”, The Polish Review 57: 2 (June 2012): 391-416.

[vi] Romuald Mandelski, “Walka ze wścieklizną u psòw i kotòw”, Świat Zwierzęcy Nr. 9 (1 Sept. 1929): 9.

[vii] Tadeusz Matecki, Ochrona Zwierząt w Polsce (Warsaw: Zarząd Głòwny Zjednoczenia Towarzystw Opieki nad Zwierzętami R.P., 1949) 92.

[viii] n.a., “Dziwne sposoby”, Przyjaciel Zwierząt Nr. 8-9 (Aug.-Sept. 1930): 4.

[ix] n.a., “O racjonalną walkę ze wścieklizną”, Świat Zwierzęcy Nr. 8 (Dec. 1932): 2.

[x] O. Matouch, “Rabies in Poland, Czech Republic and Slovak Republic”, in Historical Perspective of Rabies in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, eds. A.A. King et al. (Paris: World Organization for Animal Health, 2004), 65-66.

[xi] Global Alliance for Rabies Control, www.rabiescontrol.net (accessed 13 Jan. 2012); and Bill Wasiuk and Monica Murphy, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (New York: Viking, 2012), 206.

[xii] Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain, 1830-2000 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 4.