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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Animal masturbation

“Modern scientists agree: virtually all the higher animals – including parakeets and pigeons – are occasionally involved with their own genitalia.”
– Mels Van Driel

Lions, primates, bats, walruses, deer, zebra, sheep, warthogs, hyenas, whales, dophins, cats and dogs are just some of the animals that are known to masturbate.  They may use their flippers, their tails, their feet or their mouth.  They rub their nipples, grab their genitals, rub against inanimate objects and essentially employ all the methods than humans do.

Female ferrets use smooth stones and penguins literally get their rocks off on rocks.  Female porcupines are quite creative – they grab a stick between their front paws then ride it like a broom.  As they drag the stick around with them the jolting and vibrating stimulates them.

Male bats, male walruses and female hyenas engage in auto-fellatio – female hyenas have a phallus-esque clitoris.  Orangutans make use of twigs and leaves whilst tortoises bang their penis against hard objects.

Deer rub their antlers on the ground and can take as little as 15 seconds to satisfy themselves.  Cetaceans rub themselves against the ocean floor.

Male elephants suck on their penis with their trunk and females nibble the nipples between their front legs whilst striking their vulva with their tail.

Male marine iguanas who don’t have much chance of mating – or who may start mating with a female but are likely to get kicked off by another male before they’ve copulated – are known to masturbate whenever a female goes by.  It’s thought that this is because by masturbating they speed up the time it takes to ejaculate and thus, when they do get a chance with a girl, they can do the deed very quickly, before they get kicked off.

Other theories about why animals masturbate include mismatched sex ratios within a population, stress relief, being lower down the rank and hence not having the chance to have sex and the fresh ejaculate theory.  The latter is the idea that “masturbating clears out the old sperm faster and makes room for newer, healthier sperm.  Healthier sperm equals healthier babies” (Verdolin).

And of course, animals may masturbate because they find it pleasurable.

“While scientists debate the evolutionary reason for masturbation, there’s no doubt that humans are not alone in their self-pleasure from time to time.”
— Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer

With animals that are similar to us, it can be easy to imagine how they have stimulate themselves but you may be wondering about birds.  I was.  Most birds have a cloaca – an opening used for sex and for expelling waste – and male birds will bend their tails under an object – such as a toy – and rub their cloaca against it.  Females also rub their cloaca against an object but instead lift their tail and back up onto the item in question.

There isn’t much research into masturbation in the animal kingdom at this point so much of this is based on observations, both in the wild and in zoos where obviously there is no guarantee that the behaviour is natural.  Species in which studies have been carried out include primates, domestic animals such as horses and ground squirrels.

The ground squirrels study was suggested that male masturbation may act as a form of genital grooming.  As saliva has antibacterial properties, masturbation may reduce their risk of catching an STD.  It may also clean the reproductive tracts.  But this is clearly an area that requires a lot more research!

Whilst this blog post is entirely a bit of fun and a way to discuss masturbation in a less taboo way, it has a second purpose.  That is to dispel all those myths that we should only have sex to procreate because it’s what’s natural.  If you’ve read any of my animal and sex posts, you’ll know that sex in the animal kingdom is diverse, interesting and uninhibited.  Sex has evolved to be pleasurable for many species (although not all it must be added) in order for the species to continue and why wouldn’t we – humans and other animals – engage in something that makes us feel good?

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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:

Elephant: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Cards

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Like the tiger, there is so much that could be said about the elephant but I will try to just touch on points rather than going into great detail – if something resonates with you, find out more.

A fun fact (possibly, I have no evidence) is that despite their great size and strength, elephants are afraid of bees.

Senses

You are probably familiar with the key features of these giant land mammals – their huge ears, their long trunk, the tusks which make them vulnerable to poachers, their comparatively tiny eyes which make their vision poor… There is so much to take in when you see an elephant.

I am reminded of the tale of the blind men and the elephant.  What you perceive is only part of a whole, the view may be completely different from where someone else stands, even if they are right beside you.  We are also reminded in this tale that sight is not a sense available to everyone.  The elephant, with it’s poor eyesight, relies much more on its other senses.  As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to be a very visual society and the elephant is asking us to play with our others and not just rely on what we see.

The trunk of an elephant is amazing.  Just amazing.  They are born with short trunks which grow rapidly and they have to master controlling it.  Which is not as easy as it sounds.  The human tongue is controlled by 8 muscles, the human body as a whole is controlled by less than 700 muscles.  The elephant’s trunk is controlled by 40,000.

Let’s say that again.  The elephant’s trunk is controlled by almost 60 times as many muscles as our whole body.  5,000 times as many muscles as our tongue.  No wonder baby elephants get a bit confused

That fact alone is pretty fantastic but the trunk just gets better and better…  Elephants use it in many ways:

  • to breathe
  • to smell – they have an excellent sense of smell
  • to make noise – such as trumpeting calls
  • to touch things
  • to drink
  • to pick up things – they can lift up to 350kg
  • to reach high places
  • to snorkel with
  • to spray water over themselves

How awesome is that?!  And this adaptability, flexibility and making the most of what you have is something we can all learn from.

They also have what’s called a pharyngeal pouch at the base of their tongue which can store up to a gallon of water for emergency use.  A good reminder to always be prepared!

Sort of related to senses, are the tusks.  Tusks are overgrown teeth (hence vaguely related to the sense of taste).  For African elephants, both males and females have tusks whereas for the Asian elephant, it is only the males.  The tusks can sometimes look a bit cumbersome and certainly are the main reason why elephants are in danger, with ivory selling for exceptionally high prices.  If you want to know more about this, watch the ivory game (on netflix at the moment).

So, why have tusks?  Well, they are used to dig for water and food, they are used to mark trees, they help the elephant to clear debris such as branches from the path and they are used in fighting.  There are apparently reports of elephants trying to hide their tusks when humans are around… a sad state which tells us lots about the poaching industry as well as the intelligence of this animal.

The tusks and the trunk do mean that elephants are excellently equipped with their own built in tool kit.

Matters of the heart and mind

Elephants are social animals for whom family is very important.  They are sensitive, compassionate and loyal and are regularly seen helping each other out.  They spend most of their lives in single sex groups, meeting up for mating.  The female herd is led by one of the oldest elephants and great respect is shown for her.  This elephant will have a mental map of migration routes which has been passed down from generation to generation.  Our society on the otherhand is one which is increasingly devaluing our elders, disparaging the wisdom of age and disconnecting from our ancestors.  This may be asking you to reflect on that.

Male elephants are a symbol of virility and firey passion, given this perhaps our elephant is a male?

It is said that the elephant is a symbol of chastity – they have a gestation period of over two years and once they have given birth, they don’t have sex again for 3 to 5 years.  During this time, they are devoted to motherhood and teaching their baby how to be an elephant.  Other members of the herd will join in with this and show mum how to help her baby if need be.

Elephants are said to feel emotions deeply and to grieve for lost family members.  There are also stories of them helping out people and animals of other species including standing guard over injured people, proving shade and protection.

In addition to a big heart, these intelligent and endearing creatures have unusually an large hippocampus, the part of the brain which deals with memory, so the elephant may indeed never forget.

Myths

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In some parts of Africa is was believed that the dead would return as elephants, again tying us to the idea of our elders, our ancestors and respecting their knowledge and wisdom.

In terms of Asian beliefs, elephants are associated with lightning.  For example, Airavata, a great white elephant from Hindu mythology, could fly, call down thunderstorms and create rainbows, surely a sign of their power.  There is also Ganesha, a god who could remove obstacles for people which stand in their way of success.  Buddha is said to have been a white elephant before being reincarnated as a human, a sign of their gentle nature perhaps?

In the west, where such animals weren’t seen, they were viewed as an emblem for the weird, unusual and a bit useless, hence our phrase white elephant.