“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…
- Animals and Soceity, Margo De Mello
- PIG/PORK: Archaeology, Zoology and Edibility, Pía Spry-Marqués
- 15 animals that went to war
- Animals and war
- Animals in war
- History of animals in war