Of all the service and assistance animals in use, animals used by the military are the most controversial. To animal welfarists and animal rights activists, the use of animals by the military can be extremely disturbing. These animals are often put into tremendous danger, and many of them die during their service. On the other hand, members of the military say that service animals have saved many human lives in battle. They argue that animal deaths in war are regrettable but permissible if human lives are saved. Animal rights activists and welfarists argue that animals involved in warfare do not know what they are fighting for or against and have very poor chances of surviving.
Although some animal work is classified, it is known that the U.S. military has used horses, pigeons, dogs, chickens, dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, and other marine mammals during combat. Besides horses, many of these animals are still used in modern warfare.
Elephants were used in warfare as early as 1,100 B.C. They are mostly associated with Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) and Hannibal Barca (247–183 B.C.). Hannibal's journey with elephants across the Alps to fight the Romans is famous, but historians say that the vast majority of his elephants died during the trip. The Roman Empire incorporated elephants into its military after capturing them from defeated armies. Elephants were especially prized for striking fear into the enemy. Sometimes their heads or ears were painted in bright colors to make them look more frightening. Although they played a key role in some battles, they were also a liability. When panicked, they often ran amok among their own troops.
Roman armies assembled entire formations of attack dogs for battle. Dogs were also used in military campaigns by Attila the Hun (406–453).
Cavalry units in which warriors fought while riding horses date back to around 800–700 B.C. The ancient Scythians are generally credited with mastering war on horseback. Scythia comprised parts of Europe and Asia north of the Black Sea. The Scythians were expert archers and kept large herds of horses. They were also among the first to castrate their male horses.
Cavalry units were not widely used in European warfare because heavily armored knights had difficulty maneuvering their lances and swords while on horseback. This changed during the Middle Ages when the stirrup was introduced. In the 1500s European soldiers began using heavy artillery and cannons that were pulled by teams of horses. War dogs were used for guard and messenger duty.
During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington (1732–99) created cavalry units called Continental Dragoons that fought with distinction in several battles. These units were expensive to maintain and were disbanded after the war ended. During the 1800s, however, dragoon regiments were reinstated to fight against Native Americans and the Mexican army on the western frontier. This was the origin of the U.S. Cavalry.
Later in the nineteenth century, cavalry units were used extensively by both sides during the Civil War (1861–65). Approximately 18,000 horses were involved in an 1863 battle at Brandy Station, Virginia.
This is considered the largest cavalry battle ever in the Western Hemisphere. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, estimates that one million horses in military service died during the Civil War. By the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 400,000 troops (and horses) were in the U.S. Cavalry.
The cavalry proved ineffective during World War I. Horses could not penetrate barbed-wire fences and were mowed down by machine guns. According to the PBS Web site, most of the six million horses that served the U.S. military in World War I were killed ("Horses and Waging War," Wild Horses, An American Romance, http://www.pbs.org/wildhorses/wildintro.html). The deaths of millions of other horses in military service to other countries severely depleted the world's horse population. World War I was the last war in which horses played a major role in combat. By 1942 all U.S. Cavalry units were disbanded or mechanized.
Coincidentally, this was the same year that dogs were first officially inducted into the U.S. Army. Prior to that time, dogs had seen extensive service in European armies, particularly in France, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. In fact, the Germans established the first official school for military dogs in 1884. They used an estimated 30,000 dogs during World War I as sentries, sled dogs, pack animals, and messengers, and to perform other tasks. One of those dogs was a German shepherd puppy captured by an American soldier. The dog wound up in Hollywood, California, and starred in more than 100 movies as Rin Tin Tin. The French military also used about 20,000 dogs in World War I. At that time dogs were widely used throughout Europe for both military and police work.
The U.S. military used dogs in some campaigns during the nineteenth century, particularly in the Seminole Wars, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Dogs that sometimes accompanied American troops in World War I were officially considered mascots or pets by the U.S. military, but in 1942 dog training began in earnest. A group called Dogs for Defense asked Americans to donate dogs to the army. Dogs were trained for guard and police duty, to pull sleds, to carry packs and messages, to help reconnaissance patrols find hidden enemy soldiers, and to help the medical corps find and rescue wounded soldiers.
Following World War II, the surviving dogs were returned to their owners. This was not the case in later wars. Military officials were afraid of a trained military dog attacking someone in civilian life. It became common practice to euthanize unusable and retired war dogs or leave them behind on the battlefield. Animal welfarists and soldiers were strongly against this policy, particularly after the Vietnam War (1957–75).
Military historians estimate that war dogs saved thousands of American soldiers from death or injury during the Vietnam War. Approximately 4,000 service dogs guarded troops, alerted them to booby traps, and pulled the wounded to safety. On its Web site, the U.S. War Dog Association lists the names of nearly 300 dogs that were killed in action during the war. Most service dogs that survived the war were left behind in Vietnam when American troops pulled out. The fate of these dogs is unknown. Many veterans, including the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association, are lobbying for a national memorial to be built in Washington, D.C., to honor the service of war dogs. According to a November 26, 2000, article in Stars and Stripes 30,000 dogs have served in the U.S. military since World War II (Scott Schonauer, "New Law Allows Adoption of Military Dogs").
In November 2000 President Bill Clinton signed a new law into effect that allows retired military dogs to be adopted rather than euthanized. New owners have to agree not to hold the government responsible for any injuries or damages caused by former military dogs. Because of their extensive training, the dogs are expected to be useful in law enforcement and rescue work.
Since the late twentieth century, animals that have died in battle have been recognized as war heroes. However, the PDSA, a British organization that provides veterinary care for animals in low-income neighborhoods, has been recognizing animal heroes since World War II with the Dickin Medal, named after the organization's founder. Between 1943 and 1949, the PDSA presented Dickin Medals to thirty-two pigeons, eighteen dogs, three horses, and one cat for their accomplishments in battle. Most of the animals performed acts that saved the lives of many soldiers.
According to the Department of Defense, as of February 2005, about 2,300 dogs were working as sentries, detecting land mines and bombs, and performing search, rescue, and recovery tasks for the U.S. military. Many were stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq to deal with ongoing military conflicts in those countries. Military dogs are trained at the Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The most common breeds used are German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, and Belgian Malinois (a variety of Belgian shepherd). The military conducts its own breeding program and also purchases suitable dogs from other breeders. Most dogs have a military career of around ten years and are then retired from the service.
Hundreds of animals were used by the United States military during the 2003 invasion of Iraq,
including dogs, dolphins, pigeons, and chickens. The use of animals was criticized by animal rights and welfare groups, including PETA, the HSUS, and United Poultry Concerns. In an April 1, 2003, letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a PETA spokeswoman and wildlife biologist wrote that "these animals never enlisted, they know nothing of Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and they probably won't survive." Other activists have accused the military of wasting animals needlessly when sophisticated equipment could be used instead.
The military dogs in Iraq helped perform various tasks, including guard duty, bomb detection, scouting, and even helping apprehend enemy soldiers. The HSUS donated $9,000 to buy thirty cooling vests for K-9 dogs in battle with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. The vests wrap around the dogs' midsections and have pockets for inserts that remain cool for hours. The HSUS was worried that the dogs would suffer from hot desert temperatures (as high as 120 degrees F) during the summer months. Birds were deployed in Iraq as early-warning alerts in the event of a chemical or biological attack. However, their use is not considered a success. Nearly every chicken died after only days in the desert due to heat, stress, illness, or injury. Some may have been killed and eaten by hungry U.S. troops. The chickens were replaced with nearly 200 pigeons, but these birds too died in large numbers.
More successful was the use of some specially trained dolphins. U.S. forces used two bottle-nosed Atlantic dolphins named Makai and Tacoma to seek out underwater mines along the Iraqi coast. The dolphins were trained to find the mines without detonating them and then alert handlers to their presence.
Frontline reported on the U.S. Navy's historical use of dolphins and other marine mammals in "A Whale of a Business" (PBS, Boston, Massachusetts, 1998). The navy began its Marine Mammal Program in 1960. Marine mammals were trained to perform tasks such as filming objects underwater, retrieving and delivering equipment, and guarding vessels against enemy divers. They were used during the Vietnam War and later in the Persian Gulf during the 1980s.
Dolphins are trained to detect enemy divers and attach restraining devices to them so they can be apprehended by human handlers. These devices include a line with a buoy that floats to the surface. Sea lions are trained to actually pursue any fleeing divers who go ashore. Mine-hunting dolphins identify and mark mines so that they can be decommissioned or later exploded safely.
Stray Animals Offer Comfort during War
In addition to the dogs in official U.S. military service, soldiers stationed around the world often befriend stray dogs and cats in other countries. Soldiers report that these dogs and cats provide them with much-needed comfort and companionship during military conflicts. Many military personnel serving in Iraq in the early 2000s found that they wanted to adopt the strays they had grown to love. Laura Salter, director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said in an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "We get three to six calls or e-mails a week from soldiers, fathers, mothers, wives, and siblings trying to find out how to get a dog from Iraq to the United States" (Ron Harris, "Dogs of War Win U.S. Hearts," February 6, 2004).
Because only military animals are allowed to fly on Department of Defense planes, the soldiers must find alternative means of transporting their adopted friends back to the United States. Flying an animal across international borders and dealing with bureaucratic issues can cost as much as $2,000, so international animal welfare groups and military support organizations have joined together to raise money and attract volunteers to transport these animals to their new homes.
Adopting a pet while on a tour of duty is, however, strictly against U.S. military rules. Under General Order 1A, soldiers may receive a reduction in rank or a court-martial if they are caught with a pet while in active service overseas. According to the armed forces, this is due largely to the threat of disease from strays in foreign countries. According to the Air Force, in early 2005 fifty-three people were treated for rabies after coming into contact with an infected stray at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Bonnie Buckley, who founded Military Mascots, a nonprofit group devoted to assisting military personnel send their adopted pets home and mailing pet food to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, has acknowledged that she helps service people undermine their superior officers (Dru Sefton, "Despite Military Rules, War Zone Pets Make It to States," Newhouse News Service, February 23, 2005). She also maintains that the group will not bring a pet to the United States unless a specific family intends to take it in. Animal welfare groups are ambivalent about the practice, reminding those in the military that there are millions of homeless pets already in the United States in need of adoption.
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