by Chad Nelson
April 04, 2015

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.

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