Animals have no concept of awards or honor. They do what they do because of instinct and their devotion to humans. But when an animal does step up in the face of danger, risking its own life to complete a task that saves human lives, we honor them with a medal. The Dickin medal of honor is awarded to heroic animals worldwide who followed through with a mission and saved someone in the process.
Maria Dickin lived the comfortable life of high society. The shabby living conditions of the poor in London’s East End was far away from Mrs. Dickin’s exquisite dinner parties and social gatherings. Like many well to do women of her time, she was involved with charity work to occupy her days. One day while visiting the East End with one of her charities, Mrs. Dickin saw first hand the reality of poverty. Overcrowded living conditions and disease created an unhealthy existence where people died too young and babies were lucky to make it to their first birthday. However, it wasn’t the people who caught her attention. It was all the animals she saw that concerned her. Horses and donkeys sick and crippled from hauling too many heavy loads. Goats and rabbits crowded in people’s disheveled backyards, thin and tired looking. Scraggly cats and dogs roaming the streets with broken legs, mange and other assorted ailments, searching for something to eat. So many animals in need of medical attention. But these were poor people who had trouble feeding their families and couldn’t afford to take their pets or work animals somewhere for proper medical care.
Mrs. Dickin owned a Yorkshire terrier. Her beloved Yorkie was sick and she had to make the difficult decision to have her pet put down. During this time, her thoughts turned to the animals she had seen in the East End and she couldn’t stop thinking about their suffering. Despite protest from those around her saying the poor wouldn’t take their animals anywhere for treatment, Maria began to search for an appropriate building were she could set up a dispensary for the poor. In 1917, Maria founded the The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in a basement in London’s Whitechapel district. It was a charity veterinarian service for the poor and anyone with an animal needing care could use the services of the dispensary for free. The PDSA was so successful, police had to be called in to help control the crowds of people coming to the dispensary with their sick and injured animals. They were treating over 100 animals a day in the small cellar.
Between 1921 and 1935, the PDSA expanded to all of England with hospitals, 71 dispensaries and 11 mobile caravans that traveled around the countryside to aid those who couldn’t get to a dispensary or hospital. The charity organization was also beginning to expand to other countries.
During WW II, Maria Dickin wanted an award to honor heroic animals who were saving lives and in 1943 created the Dickin medal. People referred to it as the animal’s Victoria Cross which is the highest honor given to military personnel who faced the enemy with courage and valor. The Dickin award is the highest honor given to an animal in the service of his country through the military or civil defense.
The front of the large bronze medal reads, “PDSA For Gallantry, We Also Serve” and the back is inscribed with the details for which the award was given. The medal is attached to a ribbon striped in dark brown, pale blue and green. These three colors represent earth, water and air to symbolize the military, navy, civil defense and air forces. The Dickin medal is only given after a recommendation is received with at least one witness who can vouch for the animal receiving the award. Since 1943 to 2008, the Dickin Award has only been awarded 63 times.
Homing Pigeons were widely used during WW II and have received the most medals. Even though a pigeon will instinctively return to its own loft, many will do so on their own time. The birds who were awarded the Dickin medal received it because they had a special determination and endurance to return to their loft, a unique ability to survive (many were wounded) and speed which was crucial for soldiers in the field. If these pigeons had failed, many more lives would have been lost during the war.
A pigeon named Winkie flew 120 miles to deliver an urgent SOS from airmen who had to ditch their bomber off the coast of Scotland. The men were left treading water and had to struggle to release Winkie from her cage. Her feathers coated with oily sea water, Winkie flew non stop and arrived back at her loft just after dawn the next day. Because of her determination, the entire crew was rescued. She was awarded the first Dickin medal in 1943.
To date, 32 pigeons, 3 horses, 1 cat and 27 dogs have been honored with this prestigious medal.
In 2001, a gold Dickin medal was created for civilian animals who demonstrate bravery and a devotion to duty. The gold medal is equal to the George Cross which is the highest civilian medal a person can receive. Since 2002, the award has been given to 14 deserving dogs. Both Dickin medals are presented to heroic animals worldwide.
The Dickin Award, members.tripod.com
Maria Dickin, pdsa, for pets in need of vets
Maria Dickin and the PDSA, eastlondonhistory.com