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Military trained dolphin

Military use of animals

Armies cause death and suffering to a large number of animals throughout the world. This happens in wars and armed clashes, but it also occurs in times of peace. In some cases, animals are harmed because they are used as military resources. In others, animals are harmed with the weapons used during conflict. This occurs in several different ways.


Animals as victims of weapons or attacks

A large number of nonhuman animals lose their lives in military conflicts due to explosions, fires, chemical weapons, and other weapons used during warfare. This occurs regardless of whether armies deliberately act in a cruel way towards animals, which does happen on occasion.1 Animal deaths due to military weapon use happens mostly in wild areas, but can also occur in urban or rural areas. For example, animals on farms in the middle of warfare zones can die when they are abandoned. During a bombardment, animals confined in zoos can be killed by the bombs, and those kept as “pets” may die because they are abandoned or because their owners have also died.

In certain cases, animals have been the target of armies looking to deprive the opponents against whom they fight of “resources.”  In such cases, the armies kill animals who are being exploited or being raised to be exploited.

In other cases, animals die as victims of war weapons even when they are not being used in a war. For example, animals may be used as targets by soldiers testing their weapons.  Animals can be victims of shooting practice and maneuvers on both a small scale and when testing large-scale weapons systems. Millions of animals died as a result of outdoor nuclear trials carried out by countries like the United States, France, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and China.

Another example of animal deaths due to military testing is cetaceans who are harmed by military sonars. Many of us have heard about dolphins and whales stranded on beaches. In many cases, this happens because the animals’ sonars are damaged and they lose their orientation because of underwater military testing. An example of this is the use by the US Navy of the “Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active” (SURTASS LFAS), used for the detection of submarines, which has been recognized as a cause of very serious harm and potential death to cetaceans.2

Nonhuman animals are also killed as a result of military confrontations that do not occur during the war itself, but may occur before or after the conflict. In some cases,  animals die because they are abandoned without food in the place they were taken to during an armed confrontation. In other cases, they die due to mines and other explosives that remain after the war. Sometimes they die instantly, but sometimes their deaths are slow and painful, such as when they are seriously wounded and slowly bleed to death or die from internal injuries. Other animals are not killed but sustain major and permanent injuries such as lost limbs or internal damage from weapons of war.


Military research

Animals are also exploited for military experimentation. Armed forces sometimes test new weapons and their effects on living things by attacking animals with them. They may be interested in seeing how the animals’ bodies can resist the damage caused by attacks or extreme physical situations such as those in which soldiers may find themselves. Animals may be used as subjects in surgical experiments by military doctors to explore how weapon wounds can be treated and how they heal. All this is explained in more detail in the section about animal experimentation for military purposes.

Some examples:

  • In 2008 in the United States, bombs were detonated inside the internal organs of pigs, particularly in the brain.3
  • An experiment conducted in the Air Force Base of Brooks (Texas, USA) was carried out with what they called the Platform for Balance of Primates. This consisted of a flight simulator in the form of a chair, where primates were chained and subjected to electric shocks daily until they were able to handle the simulator. The abuse didn’t stop once they learned to handle the flight simulator. They were then subjected to radiation and chemical agents to see how long they could continue to control the simulator after being exposed.
  • A similar experiment was carried out in the Research Institute of Radiobiology for the Armed Forces in Bethesda, Maryland (USA), where apes were placed in a “wheel of activity”, which they had to keep in constant and rapid movement in order to avoid receiving electric shocks. If they could do this for several hours, something that took them several months to learn, their resilience was analyzed while they were subjected to radiation, poisons and chemical-biological agents.4


Nonhuman animals used as weapons or resources by armies

In addition to being harmed by the armies’ weapons and being used in military experiments, nonhuman animals are also harmed while being used as resources by armies.  In some cases, they have been employed as weapons to attack the enemy. There are a wide variety of ways in which this has happened throughout history:

  • During the two World Wars, dogs were used as anti-tank machines. From the time they were puppies, they were fed inside tanks or next to them. Subsequently they were deprived of food, loaded with explosives and then released in a combat zone. As they approached the enemy tanks looking for food, the explosives were detonated. Similar tactics have been used with camels and donkeys.
  • During World War II, the United States Navy conducted experiments with bats and other animal species to be used as bombs and for other military objectives.
  • Rats with explosives have been used in many cases.5
  • Currently, donkeys are used for exploding bombs. Donkeys are loaded down with bombs that are activated from a distance. This has been done in various conflicts in the Middle East.
  • Dolphins have been used as spies.6 They have been outfitted with cameras and sent into enemy zones. Knowing this, some enemy troops would kill any dolphin they saw whether they were being used for war purposes or not, because they could not distinguish between them. Dolphins have also been used to kill enemy divers, by having needles with compressed CO2 installed in their snouts.
  • In trench warfare during World War I, cats were used to detect the presence of gas.
  • Animals such as horses, elephants, mules, camels and deers have been used as a means of transport or for fighting in wars (carrying humans or goods). Other uses include pigeons to send messages, dogs and other animals to detect mines and animals killed for use as food by the military.7
  • Eagles have been used for attacking drones.8

Further readings

Barber, C. (1971) Animals at war, New York: Harper & Row.

Bruner, R. H. (1984) Pathologic findings in laboratory animals exposed to hydrocarbon fuels of military interest, Bethesda: Naval Medical Research Institute.

Budkie, M. A. (2011) “Military animal research”, Medical Research Modernization Committee [accessed on 6 July 2013].

Cooper, J. (1983) Animals in war, London: Heinemann.

Hediger, R. (2013) “Dogs of war: The biopolitics of loving and leaving the U.S. canine forces in Vietnam”, Animal Studies Journal, 2 (1), pp. 55-73 [accessed on 14 April 2014].

Hediger, R. (ed.) (2012). Animals and war: Studies of Europe and North America, Leiden: Brill.

Lawrence, E. A. (1991) “Animals in war: History and implications for the future”, Anthrozoös, 4, pp. 145-53.

Ritter, E. M. & Bowyer, M. W. (2005) “Simulation for trauma and combat casualty care”, Minimally Invasive Therapy, 14, pp. 224-234.

Romano, J. A., Jr.; Lukey, B. J. & Salem, H. (eds.) (2007) Chemical warfare agents: Chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, and therapeutics, London: CRC Press.

Tsuchiya, Y. (1997) Faithful elephants: A true story of animals, people, and war, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

1 Helmi, A. (2009) “Israeli troops shot and killed zoo animals”, Gulf News, 25 January [accessed on 11 February 2014]. Universo Animal (2014) “Norwegian soldiers killing a dog in Kosovo”, Universo Animal [accessed on 30 March 2014].

2 In 2004 a US district court dismissed the case brought by defenders of the cetaceans to stop the use of sonar on the basis that the cetaceans are not legally recognized as persons. See Cetacean Community vs Bush, 386 F. 3d 1169 (9th cir. 2004), [accessed on 20 January 2014].

3 Brook, T. V. (2011) “Brain study, animal rights collide: Red flags’ raised by use of pigs in military blast tests”, USA Today, 28 March [accessed 11 December 2012].

4 Singer, P. (2009 [1975]) Animal liberation, 1st Ecco pbk. ed., New York: Ecco, ch. 3.

5 Couffer, J. (1992) Bat bomb: World War II’s other secret weapon, Austin: University of Texas Press.

6 Brulliard, K. (2016) “Russia’s military is recruiting dolphins, and their mission is a mystery”, The Washington Post, March 11 [accessed on 21 February 2017].

7 Gardiner, J. (2006) The animals’ war: Animals in wartime from the First World War to the present day, London: Portrait. George, I. & Jones, R. L. (2007) Animals at war, London: Usborne.

8 Selk, A. (2017) “Terrorists are building drones. France is destroying them with eagles”, The Washington Post, February 21 [accessed on 21 February 2017].

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