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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Animals have always been tied into human affairs, and war is no exception. Humans have used animals in war since the beginning of time. Many epic battles are depicted being fought on horseback, from Ancient Rome to WWI. However, animals have been used in many areas of the military.
Horses are, of course, the classic image of the cavalry, used primarily for transportation and mobility in and to the battle, as well as for hauling loads. Elephants have also served a transportation function since ancient times. Hannibal infamously used elephants in the Second Punic War to great effect, but they were used as late as WWII for hauling loads smaller animals could not handle. Camels, mules, and oxen have served similar functions throughout the world.
Other animals have served as weapons or attackers in battle. Mastiffs were trained by conquistadors to attack in war, and many of today’s conception of “fierce” breeds of dogs come from their former use in war. Additionally, in more modern warfare, animals such as dogs, rats, and pigeons are used as unfortunate living bombs.
Speaking of pigeons, their function in warfare is nearly as ancient as that of horses. Homing pigeons have been a major component of warfare, delivering and concealing messages as late as WWII.
Since the advent of increasing technology and transportation, animals have fallen out of use in many areas of the military, but they still serve a function in military service today. In the Vietnam war, dogs in service rescued thousands by alerting soldiers to booby traps and pulling the wounded to safety. Dogs are currently the largest animal group currently used by the US military. An estimated 30,000 dogs have been used in military service since WWII. Generally, their primary function is as search-and-rescue dogs rather than as offense. As of 2005, some 2,300 dogs are currently in military use as guard dogs, bomb detection, and in search-and-rescue work.
In addition to dogs, the Marines currently use trained sea lions and dolphins to detect bombs underwater. They are trained in such a way as to put themselves in no danger near bombs, but to inform their handlers.
While war is an ugly business, and is almost certainly nothing to do with animals, who are content to not wage it on a global scale, the influence of animals in warfare both today and historically is exceptional. They may not be driven by a sense of honor, bravery, and patriotism that makes our human heroes so admirable, but they are motivated by loyalty to their trainers and dedication to their training, qualities that make them just as worthy of our respect and recognition.
You can learn more about animals in wartime, as well as the Animals in War Memorial dedicated to them in London, at the website of the Animals in War Memorial Fund.
Think of an epic film. There’s a good chance your mind wandered to something along the lines of Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. There’s also a good chance you immediately pictured one of the vast battle sequences where our heroes clash magnificently against their foes on horseback. Well, what about the horses? They fall under arrow-fire, get hewn down by sword and axe, and trample each other. There is a lot of authenticity to these scenes, as real epic warfare featured many painful and hideous casualties for soldier and warhorse alike; but to what extent do films try to capture this verisimilitude?
Prior to 1940, there was no regulation in the treatment of animals in film. In such classics as Ben Hur (1925), animals were killed through accidents or negligence on-set, or, more horrifically, intentionally for dramatic purposes. This all changed after the 1939 film Jesse James, where a horse was driven off a cliff to its death, sparking public outrage. The American Humane Association (AHA), a group dedicated to the welfare of animals and children, began to police Hollywood with their Film and Television Unit, famous for their “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer.
Still, films as late as the 1990s continued inhumane practices on their animal actors, particularly in epic battle sequences. Where a charge of horses was required, the common practice was to use trip-wires on the unsuspecting animals, which caused them to fall down violently, and sometimes resulted in injuries such as cuts or, in the worst cases, broken legs. This procedure has fallen out of favor largely due to the policing of the AHA, but also because of economic concerns. Quite simply, it costs more to hurt the animals and have to replace them.
Over the last few decades, and due to ever-enhancing technology, there are now many work-arounds that accomplish the realistic drama of warfare without harming the animals involved. There are trainers who specialize in raising stunt horses for use in films. These horses are trained to perform a simple forward fall by turning their heads and buckling their knees, in return for some reward. The work of the animals on-set is heavily monitored by the AHA. While these real animals add life to a scene technology cannot perfectly imitate, the safest methods are implemented by using as few real animals as possible. For the climactic battle in Braveheart (1995), a combination of trained real horses and realistic mechanical stunt doubles were used. In more recent epic films — the Lord of the Rings trilogy being one of the most notable — horses were used for riding, but were almost completely absent from the large-scale battle sequences; instead the director opted to save both effort and money with digitally-inserted horses. They still lend the dramatic weight when the heroes charge into battle, and they still look every inch as majestic. But these horses can come to no harm, and I’d say that’s the most humane film-making method Hollywood has.
See also The Fifth Estate’s Cruelty on Film timeline, a list of notable films by year where animals were either injured or killed during filming.