7 insane ways animals have been weaponized for military purposes
Since prehistoric times, people have used animals to help them fight wars. In fact, some of the earliest historical records found tell of battles between ancient warlords on horse-drawn chariots.
Dogs and horses were probably the first animals to be used in war, and many are still used by the military and police today. But throughout history, people have used an even wider range of animals for an interesting array of tasks too.
Let's find out how.
Can animals be used as weapons?
If the long, long history of our species and war have anything to say about it, then they most certainly can.
In fact, for thousands of years, humans have utilized animals as weapons in battle in some way or another. Whether they've been used directly as weapons of war or in support roles, wherever you've had standing armies in the past, you'll find animals in use somewhere.
We can't be entirely sure when animals were first employed in battle, but it is quite likely that either dogs or horses were probably the first to be tamed and trained for this purpose.
What we do know is that the first animals to be domesticated, around 10,000 years ago, were probably goats, with sheep and dogs following shortly after. However, there is some new evidence that dogs may have been domesticated much earlier, around 30,000 years ago, but these were basically wolves and not domesticated dogs in the modern sense.
Whatever the case, widescale domestication of animals began, very roughly, when humans began to make the transition from a hunter-gatherer mode of life to a more settled, agricultural one about the time of the Younger Dryas (circa 13,000 years ago).
The arrival of the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) in the archaeological record coincided with a dramatic shift in the evolution, ecology, and demography of humans, as well as countless animal and plant species. The timing of this does vary between sources, but what we consider dogs today were probably domesticated earlier than larger herbivores such as oxen or horses.
At this time, agricultural societies emerged over Eurasia, North Africa, and South and Central America as a result of something called the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution. Goats and sheep may have been the first animals to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000-11,000 years ago, according to zooarchaeological finds. Although there is evidence of sheep and goat herding in Iraq and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) around 12,000 years ago.
Humped zebu cattle are thought to have been domesticated two thousand years later in what is now Baluchistan, Pakistan. Pigs may have first been domesticated in East Asia about 10,000 years ago from wild swine that were genetically distinct from those found in the "Fertile Crescent".
The horse was domesticated around 4,700 years ago on the Southern Russian steppe. Domestication of the chicken in Southeast Asia and the cat may have been first domesticated in the Near East up to 12,000 years ago.
Animal and crop domestication occurred around the same time as the transition of people from foraging to farming in various locations and times around the world, although the exact reason for this shift is unknown.
Sometime around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, a new way of life for humans arose through the management and exploitation of plant and animal species, resulting in higher-density populations in domestication centers, the rise of urban settlements, and the expansion of the agricultural economy, and, from our point of view, more armed conflict probably soon followed.
Once humans had developed the "technology" to domesticate and train animals, it was only a matter of time before they would be used in defense and attack. Dogs and horses were likely the first animals used in war. But many other types of animals have been used in warfare. Hannibal famously used elephants during the 2nd Punic War between Carthage and the Roman Empire. Many other animals have been captured, bred, and trained for other specific roles throughout history, right up to more modern times.
Even dead animals have been used in warfare. In ancient times, animal carcasses may have been thrown into water supplies to contaminate them. More recently, during WWII, British Special Forces considered stuffing dead rats with explosives and dispersing them over Germany.
They hoped that the Germans would gather the rats and dispose of them in industrial furnaces, producing tremendous explosions that would cause catastrophic boiler failures.
However, after their first shipment of explosive rats was captured by Nazi forces in 1941, the British abandoned the scheme. The dead rats still helped the British war effort, however. The "rodent bombs" were exhibited at German military schools, leading to a huge waste of time as the Germans hunted for "hundreds of rats the enemy believed were distributed on the continent".
As working animals, many military animals perform various tasks. Horses, elephants, camels, and other animals have been used for both transportation and mounted combat.
Other animals, like pigeons, were used for both communication and photographic surveillance. Many additional animals, including rats and pigs, appear to have been used in specialized military functions.
Dogs, along with dolphins and sea lions, have traditionally been utilized in a variety of military capacities, most recently guarding and bomb detection, and are still in use today.
But, more on that later.
Did Genghis Khan Use kittens as a weapon?
In short, no, at least not how you might imagine.
Believe it or not, this is a common misconception about the "Great Khan". However, it is not actually that far from the truth if historical stories of his conquests are to be taken as gospel.
In what might be the cruelest use of animals in a war of all time, Genghis Khan is said to have come up with a plan to sacrifice thousands of animals to break a particularly exhausting siege.
In 1207, so the story goes, during the Mongol assault against the Tangut kingdom of Hsia Hsi. In a veiled threat, he offered to break the siege of Volohai in exchange for a "tribute of one thousand cats and one thousand swallows."
If you know anything about Genghis Khan, you may know where this is going...
Genghis Khan is said to have then lit them ablaze and unleashed them in a torrent of live fire. The mortified animals set fire to the city in hundreds of locations at the same time. While the defenders battled the fires, the Mongols breached Volohai's walls and conquered the city.
At least, that is what the story tells us. We'll let you decide if you believe it or not.
What animals are used in the military?
We have already covered a few examples above, but there are many other examples.
Here are some of the most interesting examples.
1. Pigeon-guided bombs were once a thing
Amazingly, during the Second World War, attempts were made to use pigeons to actually guide bombs.
Developed by the U.S.'s National Bureau of Standards, the bomb platform was actually based on a similar unpowered airframe that was later used for the US Navy's radar-guided "Bat" glide bomb. The bomb was essentially a small glider, with wings and tail surfaces, with an explosive warhead section in the center and a "guidance section" in the nose cone.
The aim, so to speak, of the project, was to train pigeons to act as "pilots" for the device, using their cognitive abilities to recognize the target. The guidance system consisted of three lenses mounted in the nose of the vehicle, which projected an image of the target on a screen mounted in a small compartment inside the nose cone.
This screen was mounted on pivots and fitted with sensors that measured any angular movement. One to three pigeons, trained by operant conditioning to recognize the target, were stationed in front of the screen; when they saw the target, they would peck at the screen with their beaks. They were trained by being shown an image of the target, and each time the pigeons pecked the image, some seed would be dispensed.
As long as the target remained in the center of the screen, the screen would not move, but if the bomb began to go off track, the image would move towards the edge of the screen. The pigeons would follow the image, pecking at it, which would move the screen on its pivots.
The sensors would detect the movement and send signals to the control surfaces, which would steer the bomb in the direction the screen had moved.
As the bomb swung back towards the target, the pigeons would again follow the image, bringing the screen back to the centered position again. In that way, the pigeons would correct any deviations in the course and keep the bomb on its glide path.
Early electronic guidance systems use similar methods, only with electronic signals and processors replacing the birds in detecting the target and preventing deviation from the glide path.
The National Defense Research Committee saw the idea of using pigeons in glide bombs as very eccentric and impractical but still contributed $25,000 to the research. The program was canceled in 1944 to focus on other, more promising developments.
Project Pigeon was revived by the Navy in 1948 as "Project Orcon"; it was canceled in 1953 when the reliability of electronic guidance systems was proven.
2. Pigs were once set alight and unleashed on the enemy
Ancient warfare occasionally used elephants in the role of "tanks". The war elephant first appeared during Indian battles in 400 BC and soon spread throughout the ancient world, terrifying adversaries who crossed their path on the battlefield.
The generals of Alexander the Great (356 BC - 323 BC) fought over the remnants of his empire after he passed away while on campaign, and some of them also employed war elephants.
General Antigonus II Gonatus invaded the town of Megara during the subsequent wars in an effort to establish himself in the disintegrating empire. He made heavy use of the elephants during the attack. It was reported later that the Megarians came up with an unusual scheme. It was already well-known that elephants were frightened by the squealing of the pigs.
The Roman Republic used swarms of pigs to frighten away battle elephants since it was well known that pigs scared elephants in antiquity. The Megarians, though, went a step farther.
The Megarians drenched the pigs in oil and set them on fire, then loosed them in the direction of the elephants. Despite the directions of their handler, the elephants panicked and fled from the flaming animals.
3. Dogs were once used as anti-tank munitions
While dogs have been an integral part of human society for thousands of years, one of the strangest uses of them in the war was to use them against tanks. Dogs were trained for use in war by both the Soviet Union and German Armies between 1930 and 1946, but from 1941 to 1943, the Soviets also trained dogs to engage German tanks.
Dogs were initially trained to leave a timer-detonated bomb and flee, but this practice was later replaced by an impact-detonation technique that resulted in the dog's death.
In 1943, the U.S. military began training anti-tank dogs in the same manner that the Russians did, but this training revealed various issues, leading to the program's ultimate termination.
In the field, the strategy suffered from some very serious problems.
For the Soviet Union, for example, 30 dogs and 40 trainers made up the first anti-tank dog squad, which landed at the frontline at the end of the 1941 summer campaign.
These dogs had been trained on tanks that did not fire their guns and stayed stationary in order to conserve fuel and ammunition. It was soon discovered that the dogs would not dive under moving tanks in the field.
While waiting for the tanks to cease moving, some stubborn dogs ran up close to them but were shot in the process. Many of the dogs fled as a result of tank gunfire.
When they returned to the trenches, they frequently jumped in with the charge already armed, killing Soviet soldiers. The returning dogs had to be shot to stop this, frequently by their owners, and this made the trainers reluctant to continue with the program.
Because of this and other problems, the use of dogs in this role declined significantly towards the war's end.
4. Bats were once used as bombs
Believe it or not, bats were once considered for utilization as a kind of incendiary bomb not so long ago.
The United States experimented with developing bat bombs as a weapon during World War II. The device was to be made up of over a thousand compartments in a cardboard, bomb-shaped case, with each compartment housing a Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) in hibernation with a tiny, timed incendiary explosive attached.
The plan was that when the casings were dropped from a bomber (usually at dawn), a parachute would open in mid-flight, and the bats would be released. They would then disperse and roost in eaves and attics within a 20-mile (32km) to 40–mile (64–km) range.
The timer-controlled incendiaries would then ignite and start flames in thousands of buildings in Japanese cities — buildings that were primarily made of wood and paper constructions.
Amazingly, the bombs actually worked with several test runs, proving promising for the concept. However, there were some notable accidents too.
On one occasion, armed bats were unintentionally unleashed and set fire to buildings and a general's car at the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base close to Carlsbad, New Mexico, on May 15, 1943.
After this failure, the Navy took over the project in August 1943 and renamed it Project X-Ray before handing it over to the Marine Corps in December.
At the Marine Corps Air Station in El Centro, California, the Marine Corps relocated its operations. The final test was conducted on the "Japanese Village," a replica of a Japanese settlement constructed by the Chemical Warfare Service at their Dugway Proving Grounds test site in Utah, after a series of experiments and operational modifications.
More tests were scheduled in 1944, but the project was eventually canceled, possibly to concentrate resources on the development of the atomic bomb.
5. Monkeys were once used as living incendiary devices
When you think of animals used as weapons, monkeys would probably be the last thing you'd think of.
In the absence of accurate laser-guided ordnance, monkeys were said to have been employed as live bombs during Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) conflicts in ancient China. The monkeys were given straw clothing, doused in oil, and set on fire before being released into enemy camps.
The monkeys would run around in flames, setting tents ablaze and wreaking havoc. A similar tactic was allegedly developed by Chinese forces during the Opium Wars with the British, but was not put into use.
6. Cats were once trialed as spying devices
The Cold War was probably the apex of espionage in the modern world. Many elaborate plots were planned and undertaken, with successes and failures on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
But, one of the most outlandish plans was to use modified cats for covert surveillance operations - especially on Soviet diplomats living in the United States. Because it would be illegal to openly spy on foreign dignitaries inside their own embassy, the CIA devised an unusual covert strategy.
After considering several options, the CIA selected the "Acoustic Kitty" project. In order to carry out their scheme, they had a cat surgically altered by implanting listening devices inside it. "Acoustic Kitty", one of the first examples of a cyborg animal, had a microphone implanted in its ear and a radio transmitter implanted at the base of its skull. The vet also wove an antenna into the cat’s fur. The CIA hoped the cat could be trained to sit near foreign officials and secretly transmit their private conversations.
Cats are unfortunately difficult to train, as any cat owner can attest. They are independent thinkers that enjoy defying their owners. During the cats' initial test in a park in Washington, D.C., the agents gave "Acoustic Kitty" the job of listening to the conversation between two men sitting on a bench. Instead of obediently sitting near the men, Acoustic Kitty wandered into a neighboring street and was struck by a car. The cat's premature death put an end to the show and cats were never considered for such projects ever again.
7. Dolphins have been recruited for a few decades now
And last but by no means least are dolphins and sea lions.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to go on marine patrols. The marine animals were chosen because they are smart and can be trained to use their excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing to allow them to detect and track underwater targets.
Perhaps the best military skill a dolphin has is its accurate echolocation sense, which lets it find things underwater that humans wouldn't be able to see. Dolphins also use their eyes underwater, but they can imagine things they can't see by making a series of high-pitched squeaks and listening for the echoes that come back.
Teams of U.S. Navy handlers take dolphins on patrols of Navy harbors and other shipping areas to look for threats like marine mines or "limpet bombs" that are attached to the hulls of warships. The dolphins are taught to look for particular things and notify their handler by pressing a postitive-response paddle. If the dolphin spots a suspicious object, it is given an electronic transmitter in a nose cup. The dolphin attaches the transmitter to the mine and Navy demolition teams can later check the object and clear it.
During the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, Navy dolphins were used to help clear mines from the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, these skills came in very handy. Dolphins in the U.S. Navy are also taught to help people who are having trouble in the water and to find enemy swimmers or divers. But the Navy says it is not true that dolphins have been taught to attack or to use underwater weapons, apparently.
And that, war animal lovers, is your lot for today.
Animals have been employed in the conduct of war for thousands of years, with some, like horses, becoming an integral part of many armies throughout the ages. However, as in the examples above, some more esoteric uses have been found for our furry and less furry friends.
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