Animals in war

“It would not be an overstatement to say that the outcomes of many of histories wars might have been very different if it were not for the role that animals such as horses and dogs played in them”
– Margo De Mello, Animals and Society

And it’s not just horses and dogs:

“Armies past and present have made use of pigs and other animals such as dogs, horses and even rats to help them win battles and conquer lands.”
– Pia Spry-Marques

Legend has it that Alexander the Great used squealing pigs to panic the war elephants of his enemies.  This was a tactic also used by Romans to repel the Greeks.  On another occasion, a squealing pig was hung from the walls of a besieged town to frighten the elephants of the enemy camped outside.  In the 1st century AD, pigs doused in pitch were set alight and driven towards the enemy’s war elephants.  War elephants were clearly intimidating but they are prone to panicking – hence the use of squealing pigs to scare them.  They would stampede in their attempts to escape and so each rider had a spike and a hammer to kill the elephant in the case that it charged towards their own lines.

Of course, dogs were also used. Ancient Greeks and Romans used them to guard their communities and military outposts.  They have also been used as pack animals, messengers, to attack, as companionship for soldiers and to pull injured soldiers to safety.  When Europeans settled in North American, dogs were even trained to attack, and even kill, the natives.

In 16th century manuscripts, we find ‘rocket cats’ being used to invade castles; cats living in the castle would be captured, bomb attached and then there was the assumption the cat would return to the castle.  I can only assume the people suggesting this plan hadn’t spent much time with a cat… I cannot image them being cooperative…

Other “animal weapons” included foxes with fire tied to their tails, boars with gun powder on their back and ‘fire birds’ – birds who had a bag of embers attached to them.  The idea being that they would then roost on enemy buildings and cause a fire.

We have a lot more information about animals used in World War One and Two, and species utilised included pigeons, horses, dogs and cats.  World War Two was the last conflict to use great numbers of horses and millions of them were killed along with tens of thousands of dogs and other animals including bats…

There was a US plan to attach timed bombs to the bats and release them en masse.  The idea being that they’d settle on buildings and then explode.  Whilst it never actually happened, it was tested and in the tests the bats roosted on a fuel tank… there were no fire extinguishers on the site.  $24 million in today’s money was spent on testing this…

More successfully, pigeons were used to convey messages and were trained to guide missiles.  It was better than existing technology but I’m not sure if pigeon missiles were ever actually implemented.  One messenger pigeon called Gustav conveyed the news of the D Day landing and by the time World War Two ended, 32 pigeons had received medals.

The Dickin medal was created in world war two to recognise animals in war.  It was established by Marie Dickin who also founded PDSA and the medal helped to publicise the charity as well as acknowledge the role of animals. Additionally, it provided a good news story during the war.

Since 1943, the medal was been awarded 71 times; 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and one cat called Simon who “Served on HMS Amethyst during the Yangtse Incident, disposing of many rats though wounded by shell blast. Throughout the incident his behaviour was of the highest order, although the blast was capable of making a hole over a foot in diameter in a steel plate.”

Alongside this good news story, the UK’s MoD lab Porton Down (opened in 1916) was investigating and experimenting on animals:

“A large number involve exploding live pigs to assess whether humans would be able to survive this sort of extreme battlefield injury and, if they did, to figure out what would be the best blood-clotting solutions for this kind of trauma.  As part of the centre’s experimental programme, pigs are also shot repeatedly and later operated on by arm doctors, or are made to inhale mustard gas to assess how this toxic gas affects human concentration levels and orientation.”
– Pia Spry-Marques

Animal experimentation wasn’t confined to the UK.  In 1946, at Bikini Atoll, 147 pigs, 3030 rats, 109 mice, 57 guinea pigs and 176 were placed in ships near to where the first atomic bomb was dropped to see how and to what extent the radiation would affect them.  Eleven years later, in the US’ Operation Plumbbob, experiments assessed the impact of radiation on pigs.

Other animals used in the world wars included the glow worm which was trapped in a jar and then used to help soldiers read maps and letters in the dark trenches.  The humble slug was used by the US army in their trenches as an early warning system to alert soldiers to the presence of mustard gas.  Slugs are more sensitive to it than humans and thus would alert the soldiers and indicate it was necessary to put on a gas mask.

In the Vietnam War, Agent Orange was used to destroy plant life (allegedly aimed at food supplies) but had the result of destroying major habitats.  The homes of tigers, elephants, gibbons, leopards and other animals were destroyed. Additionally, unexploded landmines would kill at least 40,000 animals after the war.

During the cold war, a fence 815 km long was erected between Germany and the Czech republic and although the border is now open, red deer who live in the area still don’t cross the line.  Fences such as this one have known impacts on nature.  They divide populations, split males from females, interrupt migration routes and block access to food and water sources.

Since 1960, the US Navy has used dolphins and sea lions to protect ports and equipment from attack, to retrieve objects, to spy and to locate sea mines.  They are used because they can dive deep without getting the bends, they are fast, reliable, adaptable and most importantly trainable.

Of course it’s not just marine animals that have been used to detect mines, many land animals have been used as well.  For example, the Nazis used pigs, cows and camels to check for minefields as they moved across Egypt and we have bomb sniffing dogs and rats.  In particular, the Giant African Pouched Rat has been trained by US military to detect buried landmines – they can sniff them out and are too light to set them off.

During the Iran-Iraq war, numbers of wild goats, wolves, otters, pelicans, striped hyenas and other animals were dramatically reduced, sometimes even wiped out.  In the Afghan war more than half the total livestock population was lost and in the Gulf war, more than 80% of the livestock in Kuwait died.  A deliberate oil leak by Iraqi troops also killed many aquatic animals and birds.

Looking very briefly at the impact of war on animals, we can see that zoo animals are inevitably affected during war.  Sometimes that has meant food shortages other times it has resulted in individuals being killed as a preventative attempt so that dangerous animals weren’t running around if they got out during bombing.

During Mozambique’s civil war – 1977 to 1992 – elephants were butchered for ivory and meat and populations dropped significantly.  Thankfully they are now bouncing back.  Lions, buffalo, hippos, wildebeest are now more numerous than in 1994.  During the war, Gorongosa National Park was a refuge for rebel forces and when government troops came to challenge them, there was carnage and fighting which inevitably had consequences for the wildlife in the area.

And in a very different vein, dogs are well known for their use in supporting soldiers with PTSD, so I leave you with this video, in order to end on a brighter note…

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The making of bats

The making of bats
is an act
that must take place
in the darkest of spaces;
no full moon,
no starlit skies.

Instead shadows and coal,
Silhouettes and pitch.

Hand to heartwood,
whisper wishes to the owls,
pray they take them, swift winged,
to the goddess of the night.

If you are blessed,
hear the sky fill with wingbeats.

The making of bats is a gift,
goddess given,
not a right.


If you haven’t already, take a look at my post on spontaneous generation and read about some of the ‘recipes’ that were believed to create animals prior to the 17th and 18th centuries.  You’ll realise that my own recipe isn’t that unbelievable!

Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Whilst my last post focused on sex primarily in a reproductive context, animals have sex for many reasons, just like humans do.  However, “for decades, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists have suppressed inconvenient evidence of homosexual behaviour among the human and nonhuman animals they observed” (Julien Dugnoille).

I’m going to start by looking at same sex activity as it’s one clear thread of evidence that not all animal sex is for reproduction.

There are many more bisexual animals than we tend to think and note I’m saying bisexual because often the animals aren’t solely engaging in same sex activity (which I’m going to say because same sex sex is a mouthful!).  Often, they are also having sex with the opposite sex when the opportunities arise.  The BBC also discusses whether we can claim some animals are homosexual as opposed to bisexual.

Ultimately, these are human enforced labels and as Eric Anderson says:

“Animals don’t do sexual identity.  They just do sex.”

You’ve quite possibly heard about the ‘gay’ penguins in a zoo.  They coupled up and started building their nest and sitting on rocks.  When the zoo realised what was going on, they placed an egg from a female penguin who was struggling to care for it in the nest.  The male penguins successfully incubated and raised the chick.

Same sex dolphins can become partners for life engaging in sexual behaviour, for example males can have a temporary female relationship but will return to the initial male partner afterwards.  Further, two male couples can join up to become a foursome.  One theory is that it helps to have a companion when feeding and resting because they can look out for danger.

Some male greylag geese pair up and when it’s time to raise children, they find a female and raise them together as a trio.  Some don’t but research shows the advantage of a trio; there is better defence against predators, the female has a higher social rank and better chance of survival and the female has more time to devote to her chicks because two males are helping.  After the chicks are raised, the males stay together whilst the female leaves.

In a reverse make up, roughly 2% of oystercatcher breeding groups are made up of two females and one male.  Additionally, up to a quarter of black swan families include parents of the same sex (Scientific American) and in some bird species, males steal eggs from females and raise them in same-sex unions.

Whilst these examples might feel like the exception to the rule, observers have witnessed as many as 1500 species of wild and captive animals engaging in same sex activity.

“Homosexual behaviours is surprisingly common in their animal kingdom.  It may be adaptive- helping animals to get along, maintain fecundity and protect their young.”
– Emily Driscoll, ScientificAmerican.com

Moving on from same sex activity to other non reproductive sexual activity, we find types of fruit bats who engage in oral sex, both female on male and male on female.  There is also masturbation and attempts to mate with the dead…

But what is all this sexual activity about?  Obviously, some sex is about reproduction, but pleasure, bonding and keeping the peace are all reasons for engaging in sex.

Bonding can be important for group species and strong bonds can be very helpful when facing off rivals or seeking protection from other group members.  This bond is also important in maintaining a strong group dynamic and sexual activities can diffuse social tensions.  Another type of bond is that of a parenting couple who may engage in sexual activity to maintain their bond whilst raising their young.

It’s interesting to look at an example, the bonobo.  Bonobos use sex to greet each other, to resolve conflict and for pleasure.  They engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex and penis fencing and are in general a very peaceful species.  Perhaps humans would be more chilled out if we had more sex?

But lets take a second to focus back on masturbation.  As well as humans, many other primates engage in masturbation and this can range from simple stimulation with their hands through to using twigs and leaves and other inanimate objects.  Females have been observed inserting objects into their vaginas and one male orangutan created his own sex toy:

“In one display of sexual ingenuity, a male orangutan created his own ‘sex toy’ using a large leaf, through which he poked a hole with his finger.  He then proceeded to thrust his erect penis through the hole for additional stimulation.”
– Carin Bondar

Sexual activity may also help some animals to reiterate their social hierarchy and may allow individuals to climb the ranks.

In some cases, animals may engage in non reproductive sexual activities such as same sex sex in order to gain sexual experience.  It’s interesting to note that it seems that same sex activity appears to be more common in captivity (although that could just be because its easier to observe), possibly because of a lack of alternative options and greater need for stress release.  In a similar way, you tend to find higher than ‘natural’ rates of same sex activity in prisons.

Time for another example!  Most penguins are not monogamous but it is by turning to Adelie penguins that we really get our eyes opened.  A scientific paper from 1915 had been hidden away for years, labelled not for publication and when it was rediscovered in 2009, it became clear why scientists of the time were reluctant to publicise the observations.

“They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behaviour to gang rape, necrophilia and paedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans’, including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent’.  Strayed chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks’.”
– Lucy Cooke quoting Dr George Murray Levick

Whilst this all sounds incredibly shocking, there is an explanation.  Adelies get together in October, flooded with hormones and only a few weeks to mate.  Young males are inexperienced and don’t really know what to do or how to act and this can lead to some questionable activity…  In their hormonal eyes, a frozen penguin in the right position can look a lot like an interested female… Apparently necrophilia isn’t just restricted to penguins…  Lucy Cooke references pigeons mounting dead house martins, male house sparrows attempting to mate with dead females and the same going on with a couple of pheasants…

In addition to all of this wonderfully interesting and fun goings on, we have those animals which change sex.

Suggested reading:

Bat: Animal Dreaming

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Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Bat

Australia has over 90 species of bat, ranging a lot in size and habitat.  This one though looks like the spectacled flying fox, also known as the spectacled fruit bat.  The head and body length is 22–25 cm and prefer life in the rainforest, eating, as the name suggests, fruit!

As we saw in the owl card, in some aboriginal cultures, the souls of women are associated with owls, and the souls of men with bats.  There is a lovely tale about the bat, Balayang, and how he found his wives and also the story of how Balayang came to be black.

In terms of the keyword rebirth, there are a couple of ways I see this:

The spectacled flying fox doesn’t live in caves, but let’s say we have a bat which does.  We can see the cave as a the womb, literally of mother earth, and the bat leaves the cave after hanging upside down, the same way that a baby leaves it’s mother during birth.  In the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, some aborigines place their dead in caves.

In one aboriginal story, it was all dark and the animals didn’t like this although bat did.  Eventually he was persuaded to help bring back the light.  Bat asked around to see if anyone had a boomarang.  Lizard did and even though lizard liked the dark, he handed it to bat.  Bat threw the boomarang and divided the darkness, giving light to the animals and keeping dark for himself. And thus the cycle of night and day continues, giving us a daily rebirth.

Bat: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

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Ah, the bat, the only flying mammal and the only mammal in this suit.

Bats are a feared creature, misguidedly associated with death and Dracula. Only vampire bats suck blood and they seem to prefer the blood of cows. Whilst we’re dispelling myths, most bats do not have rabies and they won’t get tangled in your hair. They use echolocation and sight to figure out the world around them and there really is nothing of interest in your hair.

Yes, that means the old saying as blind as a bat is a falsehood. Most bats use echolocation to find their way in the dark but as I said, some species rely more on their sight.  This ability to see in the night skies means the bat is often a symbol of intuition, clairvoyance and psychic ability.  Trust your senses to guide you.

These masters of the night generally live in colonies and have been known to feed sick and elderly bats, some species even adopt orphaned bats.  The species has a wide diet ranging from insects and fruit to fish, frogs and more.  Their role as a pollinator and in spreading seeds make the bat a keystone species and links them with fertility and sexuality.

Their night time life ties them to the moon and as we’ve seen with the moth, this associates them with the realm of the unconscious, our fears, our emotions and mystery.

The bat cave is a sanctuary for this creature, a place of safety.  But for us, going into the darkness is associated with fear, entering the unconscious, the darker unknown part of ourselves.  Our fears can act as protectors, for example a fear of sharks means you probably won’t go swimming with them and thus won’t get eaten by one, they stop us looking at painful parts of our lives.  But fears can also be irrational and they hinder us rather than keep us safe.  Entering the cave can help us understand our fears and our unconscious mind.

Wild Unknown Tarot

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The Hanged Man card is very strongly linked with the symbolism of the bat card.  Hanging upside down is used in shamanic initiations and rituals as a way of retrieving enlightenment.

This card is about changing your perspective, literally looking at things upside down like the bat.