Oh, No! 17 Times Animals Were Used as High-Tech Weaponry
Apparently, police in Russia want to ride around on reindeer. The request by officers in the nation’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug region, reported by international news outlets last month, caused the world to raise its collective eyebrow. Perhaps the Russians, stationed in one of their country’s most remote outposts, had watched one too many marathons of The Santa Clause and its sequels, searing visions of flying, animatronic companions into their minds.
But this wasn’t a whim. The police in Yamalo-Nenets have apparently been requesting reindeer since 2012 because they’re the best way to access remote parts of the arctic where suspects flee on their own reindeer sledges. The existing police snowmobiles often break down, and they point out that there are already regulations for the care and use of reindeer in Russian police protocols. Similar programs, acknowledging local terrain and the adaptive advantage of these beasts, exist in Finland and Norway, bolstering the Russian force’s case for felt-antlered companions.
Much as we love to think of ourselves as the masters of nature, these little adaptive advantages have long enticed humans to work with animals. We’re familiar with the use of dogs, elephants, and horses, which stretches back over three thousand years (and we still find dogs’ noses useful for sniffing out narcotics). But as Russia’s reindeer prove, these are far from the only animals we call into service to police our streets or fight our battles. Some of the creatures we’ve used, and the usually good reasons we’ve decided to use them, as our partners are quite surprising.
In alphabetical order, find our armed forces’ most unexpected animal allies.
Illustration by Daniel Zender.
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During World War II, a dentist inspired by the swarming power of bats decided they’d be the perfect suicide soldiers. He convinced the U.S. military to sink several months and millions of dollars into strapping incendiary bombs to the creatures, who would be unleashed on cities, swarm into the darkest and most remote cracks, and let off massive and inconvenient blasts. The plan was scrapped just before deployment for unclear reasons. Bats rejoiced.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.
On the opposite end of the destructive spectrum, just this year researchers in Croatia and France have unveiled colonies of trained bees who, when released over a landmine strewn field, will hover over anything that smells like the metals and plastics used to make the infernal explosives. The hope is that they’ll make clearing out field in the Balkans much safer and faster.
Photo by Flickr user Walt Jabsco.
The latest from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, our own government-salaried mad scientists, meet the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project. As batty as it sounds, the government actually appears hellbent on installing mind-control hardware into audio-visual-equipped moths, among other critters, to use the innocuous creatures as the word’s tiniest cyborg spies.
Photo by Alper Bozkurt, North Carolina State University.
Finally, a simple one—many desert countries employ camels to patrol the vast and shifting sands where tires and cars easily sink or stall, but these beasts’ wide feat easily displace weight and glide along. In Jordan’s Wadi Rum, the Royal Desert Forces are especially fond of using camels given the prevalence of Bedouin, the animals’ age-old herders, amongst cops and criminals alike.
Photo by Flickr user David Dennis.
Let’s get this out of the way: If it moves, we’ve probably strapped a bomb to it—cats included, apparently. But beyond their shoddy use as explosives, the CIA long pondered using cats as spies, preying on our predilection for house pets by embedding radio transmitters and microphones in our feline friends in the now-defunct Acoustic Kitty program.
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Times photographic archive, Wikimedia Commons.
These guys came into the news this year when Russia seized the Ukraine’s military dolphins during its March invasion. But the U.S. has used Flipper for his mine-detecting sonar, superior to that of most machines, since the Vietnam War at least.
Photo courtesy Official U.S. Navy Flickr page.
Although never fully operationalized, it appears that the British and Israelis both caught onto the fact that you can train gerbils to smell and pull a level reporting adrenaline. That’s perfect for airport screenings, they thought, until quickly realizing that nervous flyers, not just terrorists, give off a pungent plume of stress-induced adrenaline too.
Photo by Flickr user Jeroen.
A much older use than any others on the list, apparently back in the days of the war elephants the Roman historian Pliny the Elder swine were the perfect cheap solution for spooking these mammoth attackers.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons user BS Thurner Hof.
Apparently we tried to turn these flying rats into bombs as well at one point. Then we tried to use their migration senses as a homing mechanism for missiles. But mostly we just used the carrier variety of pigeon to transport messages when we needed to maintain radio silence, and the birds in turn (perhaps thankful not to be blowed up, had an amazing delivery completion rate).
Photo courtesy German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons.
Speaking of rats, back in 2006 landmine clearers in Tanzania discovered that you could use African Giant Pouched Rats (think cat-sized) to sniff out landmines about fifty times faster than humans, and with no danger of tripping the devices like dogs. They’ve been used extensively in Mozambique to date, and seem useful in sniffing out tuberculosis patients in Tanzania as well.
Photo by Instagram user HeroRats.
Dolphins have their sonar, but sea lions have some of the best vision of all mammals and can be trained to spot and report marine threats. Apparently they can also be trained to “cuff” swimmers, using a mouth clamp to swoop grab their legs, deterring shallow-water introducers.
Photo courtesy Official U.S. Navy Flickr page.
The rest were animals we’ve attempted to use systematically, but there are a number of other critters that police and soldiers have taken in one at a time more as morale boosters than as species-wide human allies. These one-off mascots include:
Nils Olav, a Penguin in Scotland knighted by the King of Norway and named colonel-in-chief of the Royal Guard, which may actually be one of the country’s highest remaining ranks.
Officer Lemon, a Japanese police cat complete with his own uniform used by officers in Kyoto to calm victims of crime as they wait in the station.
Santisuk, a pigtailed macaque monkey raised at a border checkpoint in Thailand, where he hails cars to stop—and the incredulous drivers for once happily comply because … monkey cop!
Wojtek, a bear found in Iran by the Second Polish Transport Company and ceremonially inducted into the Polish Army for the rest of his life. He’s still the company mascot today.
William Windsor, a goat inducted into the Royal Welsh Infantry by the Queen of England as a lance corporal. He led unit parades and received a salary of Guinness beer and two cigarettes daily before retiring eight years into his service with full honors.
Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons.