A century ago, Maria Dickin set the goal of helping London’s animals. While even today we remain dissatisfied with the quality of life offered most animals, we know that current conditions are far better than those of the early 1900s. Dickin described an epiphany experienced while caring for her own little dog: “I had her in my arms in the middle of the night, and she was looking so pathetically gloomy. I just put my face down on her head and sang her a song of weariness and pain. In my mind, I could see suffering animals all over the world without anyone to help them. ‘This can’t go one,’ I told myself, ‘someone must do something about this.’ I learned in life that if you want anything done, you do it yourself.” And so she did.
In 1917, Dickin turned a London cellar into a clinic offering care for “sick and injured animals of the poor.” Dismissed as a batty old lady, yet by the 1940s her People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) had become Britain’s largest animal care center. In 1943 with much of the world at war, it was a logical step for PDSA to create the Dickin Medal awarded to animals’ “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving.” Three messenger pigeons (Winkie, White Vision, Tyke) and a mutt named Bob (who patrolled with the 6th Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment) were the first to wear the tiny bronze medallions, and pigeons and dogs have taken home most of the honors. Two horses (Regal and Olga) were awarded in 1947 for calmly assisting in rescue operations following WWII bomb explosions. Simon is the only cat recipient of the Dickin, honored for remaining true to his job eradicating rats on board the HMS Amethyst despite sustaining personal injuries. A sailor who served alongside Simon and described him as “an equal and a friend” told the BBC: “We had Simon on board because people liked him, he kept people company. It’s the same reason you have one at home. Hearing a cat purr, and the like, it’s very comforting to people.” The 2018 recipient is Kuga, killed in Afghanistan courageously tackling Taliban snipers, honored posthumously.