How Animals Fare in War

The L.A. Times recently reported on the U.S. Navy’s training of dolphins and sea lions as part of its seemingly limitless global war strategy. The Navy hopes that these animals’ biological capabilities will allow them to find underwater enemy mines and swimmers in "restricted areas", on whom the sea lions would attach "bite plates". While the Navy trainers claim to feed, care for, and interact with the marine mammals, they are nonetheless captured and removed from their native habitats and conscripted into dangerous and potentially deadly situations. For all of the counterclaims that the animals enjoy and are naturally inclined to undertake these tasks, it’s clear that they would not be inclined to involve themselves in activities that would kill them. It’s yet another sad example in the long history of governments endangering unknowing animals as part of their lethal activities.


The 2011 Steven Spielberg film War Horse brought the issue of animals in wartime to a wider audience. But it turns out that War Horse (Joey) wasn’t the only animal sold into battle during WWI. According to a 2014 report, some 9 million animals perished in WWI. Even more upsetting is that many of them were forced into battle as part of the war effort on both sides. Among them were homing pigeons, hawks, canaries, dogs, horses, mules, donkeys, and cats. When Allied powers discovered that homing pigeons could relay enemy positions to distant bases, Germans enlisted hawks to kill the valuable pigeons. Some of the other four-legged creatures were given different tasks, such as carrying mail, sniffing out bombs, transporting supplies, and clearing rats from trenches and ships. Numerous accounts of the role played by animals in WWI portray them as unwitting heroes, but few cast a critical eye on the barbaric practice.

Animals didn’t manage much better in WWII. During one horrific week in Great Britain in September 1939, approximately 750,000 household pets were slaughtered. A directive was issued by the British government that all "non-essential" animals should be destroyed as they would be a hindrance to Britain’s success. A hindrance, because government rationing could not accommodate animal food and supplies. As a result, pet owners killed or had their beloved animals euthanized en masse. Many who couldn’t bear to comply simply released their animals into the streets to fend for themselves.

Animals held in zoos worldwide also faced mass death and starvation during WWII. In her book, Japanese Wartime Zoo Policy: The Silent Victims of World War II, Mayumi Itoh explains that perhaps no country was as thorough in its extermination of rare and endangered zoo animals than Japan. And this extermination occurred not only in Japanese zoos, but in Japan’s colonies as well, such as Taiwan and Korea. Itoh says that the Japanese motivation for the mass killings was as much about rallying its citizens by showing sacrifice as it was about public safety.

The Gulf War, not commonly thought of as a prolonged or destructive one (by non-Middle Easterners, at least), also wreaked havoc on the Gulf’s animal population. The indiscriminate slaughter of animals began even before war had officially broken out, as US and allied training exercises in Saudi Arabia showered bombs on native Bedouin camels that roamed freely in the open desert. That chaos continued throughout the war, as native desert populations were continually bombed and had their habitats torn up by military vehicles careening through the desert. Other marine animals and birds suffered mightily from oil spills in the Gulf, and from toxic smoke released into the air as a result of massive oil fires. And as in WWII, animals held captive in Iraqi zoos suffered terrible fates, many brutally tortured and executed by the Iraqi military.

Canines are still widely used by the American and British militaries in today’s Middle Eastern wars. In Afghanistan and Iraq, dogs are primarily used to locate roadside bombs. The bomb-sniffing dogs are so valuable, in fact, that there are entire breeding and training facilities dedicated to churning out the dogs solely for this purpose. Their combat service can last as long as ten years, after which they’re often stricken with canine post traumatic stress syndrome. Despite the tragedy that befalls many of the dogs and their military handlers with whom they develop a close bond, many of the handlers are eager to continue risking the lives of new, unsuspecting dogs even after witnessing their first partners die gruesome deaths.  And as with so many other unintended tragedies of war, the dogs do not always die in combat.  In 2011, fourteen dogs died in an unventilated truck in Houston awaiting deployment to Afghanistan. They had been bred and trained for one deadly situation, only to be killed before they even began their long and treacherous journey.

As tragic as the human element of war is, animals suffer far worse. One wonders how complete the destruction was for animals in other wars like Vietnam, where the aftereffects of Agent Orange and unexploded cluster bombs are still ever present. For animals, there is no planning, no hiding, and no escaping the mayhem of human warfare. Although citizens have little voice in their government’s wars, animals can have none. They must take the devastation wrought upon them by humans without protest. Even more unfortunate, retrospectives on animals during wartime are usually limited to valorizing their contributions to the war cause. Little criticism is ever levied against their human killers. For genuine animal lovers, a firm antiwar disposition is a must. They are truly the most innocent bystanders of the human stain that is war.

Chad Nelson is an assistant editor for Follow him on Twitter.