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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.