Animals and war

Animals and war

17 Jun 2022

Nonhuman animals have been part of armed conflicts throughout history, and remain so today. Some animals are actively used in military activities, for example, to carry equipment such as first aid kits, ammunition or explosives, to help defend or attack military positions, to spot enemies, or to locate hazards. Others are used in the research and development of military technology, weaponry, and in the training of soldiers and field medics. And others are just incidental victims of conflict, often left struggling to survive in the aftermath of war.1 This is another consequence of speciesism that adds to all the harms that animals already suffer both as a result of their exploitation and due to natural causes in the wild.

Nonhuman animals’ suffering during armed conflicts is often overlooked or deemed irrelevant in the face of human suffering, both by the parties to the conflict and by the general public. But war causes death and suffering to animals too, sometimes on an even greater scale than it does to humans. These harms, as we will see, are not confined to periods of active conflict but can also occur during peacetime, either as a consequence of a previous armed clash or in preparation for a future one. Taking the interests of nonhuman animals into account means we should critically examine the harms nonhuman animals suffer both as workers and as victims of the use of weapons during times of war.

Animals as victims of war

Whether caged (in zoos, aquariums, laboratories or farms), domesticated or wild, animals suffer passively as victims of armed conflicts. During a war, animals kept in captivity are in a very vulnerable situation. They can be killed in two different ways: first, they can be killed directly by weapons. This can be by means of an airstrike, a bombardment or at the hands of soldiers under the guise of necessity (in which it is decided that in a state of emergency there are not enough resources to care for these animals ) “And second, they can be killed passively, for example by starvation after being abandoned in the installations they were kept in, their caretakers having either fled or died.2 Similarly, those kept as pets are also dependent on their human caretakers, who might (willingly or not) abandon them or even die in war, leaving the animals unable to survive on their own.

Though terrible, this suffering is dwarfed by the harms that warfare inflicts on animals living in the wild.3 The most obvious way in which wild animals are directly impacted by warfare is by mines, bombs, chemical weapons, and fires. When these attacks don’t kill the animal outright, they often leave them severely wounded or even disabled for life in an environment degraded by war. All of this causes them great suffering and often results in their death some time later, as their injuries leave unable to survive unaided. Furthermore, wild animals can also suffer from being part of military strategies. Wild animals can become the direct or indirect subjects of military tactical destruction. Military tactical destruction aims to damage a particular environment in order to weaken the enemy forces by depriving them of resources and/or environmental camouflage. For example, destroying forests to eliminate hiding places also kills wild animals, either directly if they are killed in the destruction, or indirectly if they subsequently starve to death because they are left with no food. A notorious example of this was the use of Agent Orange by the United States during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was a chemical herbicide and defoliant that wreaked havoc on both the local human population and on the wild animals who lived in the areas where these chemicals were dropped.4 Most of the harms that warfare inflicts on wild animals do not come from injury caused by weapons but instead from the consequences that warfare has on their environment.5 This does not mean, however, that direct harm is uncommon: wild animals can also be a direct target of tactical destruction operations, which might aim to kill animals upon which the enemy depends for survival, in order to restrict their access to food, clothing or other primary materials.

Wild animals can also suffer from the proliferation of military-grade equipment. Once an armed conflict has reached a region, it becomes easier for civilians to gain access to military equipment and weaponry that was previously unavailable. This can easily lead to hunters procuring more effective weapons with which to kill more animals.6 War can also lead to wide-spread deployment of military sonar equipment used to detect submarine threats, a type of equipment well-known for causing severe harm and potentially death to dolphins, whales, belugas and other cetaceans whose biosonars become impaired.7

Animals can be victims of war even after the conflict has ended. It is well known that mines and booby traps can remain active for years, even decades, after a conflict is over, and it is common for both humans and nonhuman animals to accidentally detonate them and suffer painful mutilations and even death. Although humans can be warned and deterred from traversing areas in which there are unexploded munitions, nonhuman animals cannot understand such warnings and their needs might require them to enter the hazardous areas.

Lastly, animals may be used as targets by soldiers, either to practice their aim or to test the effects of a weapon on living bodies: for instance, animals are shot at with different types of armaments in order to test perforation under different conditions. Apart from that, poisons and chemical agents employed in warfare are also tested on living animals, both in trials and for the study and development of treatments.8 Training animals on certain tasks to then subject them to toxic substances or radioactivity in order to test their bodies’ endurance in the face of extreme situations is just one of multiple examples of such military research on animals.9 However, testing weaponry on animals is not limited to individual trials of a few dozen subjects; rather, it is pursued on a much larger scale. Explosives, chemicals, bombs, airstrikes, and even nuclear weapons are all tested upon living beings to see how deadly they are. Millions of animals died as a result of nuclear tests carried out in the twentieth century by countries such as China, France, the United States, the USSR and the United Kingdom.

Animals as soldiers, weapons and resources

For millennia, animals have been part of armed conflicts not only as victims but also as active participants in war. Some of the most common uses of animals during armed conflicts have been as a means of transport, both for humans and heavy goods; to send messages and information from one point to another on the battlefront, or beyond; to detect hidden hazards, such as mines, booby traps and other explosives, as well as enemy soldiers; to spy on enemies, to carry recording devices; and, of course, as food for human consumption. Moreover, there is a wide variety of animal species that have been deployed as “soldiers” on the battlefield throughout history. Some of them have been used as weapons. Their part in the conflict has entailed attacking enemy soldiers themselves, or being forced to carry explosives that are later detonated, while still attached to the animal the animal. A notorious example of this were the dogs used by the US army during World War II. These animals were trained to run towards enemy tanks while carrying bombs, which were then detonated. In addition, others have been used by military field medics. These animals carry medicines and first aid kits in dangerous and difficult situations on the front lines or help carry wounded humans away from the battlefield to be treated by medics. Species such as horses, dogs, elephants, camels, mules, oxen, dolphins, pigeons, pigs or donkeys, just to mention a few examples, are often trained and later deployed as active members of the war effort. They suffer not only from the stress of their deployment on the battlefield and from being wounded, but also from the harsh military training they receive prior to that point. Furthermore, if they fail in their training they may even be killed by their trainers.10

Moreover, animals, particularly pigs and goats, are often used to train human field medics to perform surgical procedures. In order to learn how to treat wounds however, the animals must be wounded. The animals therefore are deliberately injured, usually by gunshots, but also by chemical weapons, amputations, etc. depending on the treatment that will be tested or practiced.11

Taking nonhuman animals into account means rejecting harming and killing them in wars

The plight of animals due to armed conflicts has been widely neglected to date.

While animals themselves are rarely the intended target of military interventions, they always suffer as collateral casualties. Despite animals being deeply affected by these conflicts, either by interference with their means of survival or by being required to take part in hostilities directly, the question of the (im)permissibility of harming animals has received little attention in just-war theory. Just-war theory is a doctrine that seeks to ensure a war is morally justifiable by adhering to a series of criteria applicable both to jus ad bellum (the fair resort to armed combat) and jus in bello (right conduct during said combat).12

In this regard, it must be noted that the military activities that cause the most harm to animals are the ones that are likely to also affect human non-combatants. We have already seen that the greatest foreseen-yet-unintended source of animal suffering during armed conflicts comes from indirect harm caused to wild animals during war. But the criterion of discrimination in just war theory requires an army to avoid carrying out attacks that are either not aimed at a particular enemy target or cannot be limited to that particular military target. An animal-inclusive just-war theory would make just war more demanding, but if we take the interests of animals seriously. then we must accept this (it could also be argued that the same military actions most likely to harm animals are already objectionable due to the harms they present to human civilians, though this is an argument based on human interests, not on those of other animals ) “An indiscriminate attack will inflict spillover harms not only on humans who are not a military threat, but also on nonhuman animals. Chemical and nuclear warfare, carpet-bombing, booby-traps, land mines etc. cannot differentiate between human beings and nonhuman animals, just as they are unable to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.13

Of course, it is also possible to reject just-war theory and accept some other view. Examples of these include pacifist positions that oppose all wars as inherently wrong regardless of how they are fought. On these views, none of the harms posed to animals mentioned here could ever be justified. Other positions, such as consequentialist ones, judge the ethics of war not on whether they are fought according to the right motive and in the right way as stated in a set of rules, as just-war theory does. Rather, they examine whether wars are fought to avoid the worst scenarios. If we accept a view of this kind, we will evaluate the moral justifiability of wars differently. However, as in the case of just-war theory, we should also take into account how wars affect nonhuman animals. To do otherwise would be discriminating against nonhuman animals, which is speciesism.

Further reading

Cochrane, A. (2018) Sentientist politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DeGrazia, D. (2002) Animal rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2013 ) “A defense of animal citizens and sovereigns”, Law, Ethics, and Philosophy, 1, pp. 143-160 [accessed on 23 May 2022].

Fabre, C. (2012) Cosmopolitan war, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gardiner, J. (2006) The animals’ war, London: Portrait.

George, I. & Jones, R. L. (2007) Animals at war, Tulsa: EDC.

Hediger, R. (2012) Animals and war, Leiden: Brill.

McMahan, J. (2009) Killing in war, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Regan, T. (2004 [1983]) The case for animal rights, updated with a new preface, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Singer, P. (2011 [1979]) Practical ethics, 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1 Milburn, J. & Goozen, S. van (2020) “Counting animals in war”, Social Theory And Practice, 47, pp. 657-685.

2 Hediger, R. (2017) “Animals in war”, in Maher, J.; Pierpoint, H. & Beirne, P. (eds.) The Palgrave international handbook of animal abuse studies, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 475-494.

3 Milburn, J. & Goozen, S. van (2020) “Counting animals in war”, op. cit.

4 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2022) “Agent orange: Defoliant”, Encyclopedia Britannica, May 24 [accessed on 17 June 2022]

5 Andrzejewski, J. (2013) “War: Animals in the aftermath”, in Nocella, A. J.; Salter, C. & Bentley, J. K. C. (eds.) Animals and war, Lanham: Lexington Books, pp. 74-95.

6 Gaynor, K. M.; Fiorella, K. J.; Gregory, G. H.; Kurz, D. J.; Seto, K. L.; Withey, L. S. & Brashares, J. S. (2016) “War and wildlife: Linking armed conflict to conservation”, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14, pp. 533-542.

7 Animal Ethics (2016) “Military use of animals”, Animals as workers and tools, Animal Ethics [accessed on 29 April 2022].

8 Milburn, J. & Goozen, S. van (2020 ) “Counting animals in war”, op. cit.

9 Animal Ethics (2016) “Military use of animals”, op. cit.

10 Nowrot, K. (2015) “Animals at war: The status of ‘animal soldiers’ under international humanitarian law”, Historical Social Research, 40 (4), pp. 128-150.

11 Menache, A. (2017) “Animals in scientific research”, in Maher, J.; Pierpoint, H. & Beirne, P. (eds.) The Palgrave international handbook of animal abuse studies, op. cit., pp. 475-494.

12 A few examples of these criteria relevant to us are: proportionality, which requires that there be a balance between the harm caused by a war action (or the war itself) and the good it seeks to achieve; necessity, which requires that the actions taken are the least harmful (yet feasible) of those available; discrimination, which requires that those targeted in war are the ones involved in the armed conflict, differentiating between political leaders, combatants and civilians.

13 Milburn, J. & Goozen, S. van (2020) “Counting animals in war”, op. cit.