10 Ways Animals Have Served the Military

German shepherd with a handler
Photo: ANURAKE SINGTO-ON/Shutterstock

From spying cats to bomb-sniffing bees, animals have served some bizarre roles in military operations. Here are 10 of the strangest ways the world's militaries have used animals to gather intelligence, nab terrorists and fight our wars.

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Dolphin spies

Photo: United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Dolphins have been serving in the U.S. Navy for more than 40 years as part of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, and they were used during the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. These highly intelligent animals are trained to detect, locate and mark mines — not to mention suspicious swimmers and divers.

For example, in 2009 a group of bottlenose dolphins began patrolling the area around Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington. The marine mammals are on the lookout 24 hours a day, seven days a week for swimmers or divers in the base’s restricted waters.

What happens if a dolphin finds an intruder? The dolphin touches a sensor on a boat to alert its handler, and the handler then places a strobe light or noisemaker on the dolphin's nose. The dolphin is trained to swim to the intruder, bump him or her from behind to knock the device off its nose and swim away while military personnel take over.

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Bomb-sniffing bees

Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Honeybees are natural-born sniffers with antennae able to sense pollen in the wind and track it down to specific flowers, so bees are now being trained to recognize the scents of bomb ingredients. When the bees pick up a suspicious odor with their antennae, they flick their proboscises — a tubular feeding organ than extends from their mouths.

In practice, a honeybee bomb-detection unit would look like a simple box stationed outside airport security or a train platform. Inside the box, bees would be strapped into tubes and exposed to puffs of air where they could constantly check for the faint scent of a bomb. A video camera linked to pattern-recognition software would alert authorities when the bees started waving their proboscises in unison.

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Terrorist-fighting gerbils

Photo: Jearu/Shutterstock

MI5, the United Kingdom's counter-intelligence and security agency, considered using a team of trained gerbils to detect terrorists flying into Britain during the 1970s. According to Sir Stephen Lander, the organization’s former director, the Israelis had put the idea into practice, placing gerbil cages at security checks at the Tel Aviv airport. A fan wafted the scent of suspects into the gerbils’ cage, and the gerbils were trained to press a lever if they detected high levels of adrenalin.

The system was never implemented at U.K. airports because the Israelis were forced to abandon it after it was discovered that the gerbils couldn’t discern between terrorists and passengers who were just scared of flying.

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Anti-tank dogs

Photo: By Maria Moskvitsova/Shutterstock

Anti-tank dogs were used by the Soviet Union during World War II to fight German tanks. Dogs with explosives harnessed to their backs were trained to seek food under tanks — when the dog was underneath the vehicle a detonator would go off, triggering an explosion. While some Soviet sources claim that about 300 German tanks were damaged by the dogs, many say this is simply propaganda trying to justify the program.

In fact, the Soviet anti-tank dog had several problems. Many dogs refused to dive under moving tanks during battle because they had been trained with stationary tanks, a fuel-saving measure. Gunfire also scared many of the dogs away, and they would run back to the soldiers’ trenches, often detonating the charge upon jumping in. To prevent this, the returning dogs were shot — often by the people who had sent them — which made trainers unwilling to work with new dogs.

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Insect cyborgs

Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Insect cyborgs might sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but the U.S. Department of Defense is developing such creatures as part of its Hybrid Insect Initiative. Scientists implant electronic controls into insects’ bodies during the early stages of metamorphosis and allow tissue to grow around them. The insects can then be tracked, controlled and used to gather or transmit information. For example, a caterpillar could carry a microphone to record conversations or a gas sensor to detect a chemical attack.

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Spy cats

Photo: Yoko Nekonomania/flickr

During the Cold War, the CIA attempted to transform an ordinary domestic cat into a sophisticated bugging device as part of Operation Acoustic Kitty. The idea was to surgically alter cats so they could eavesdrop on Soviet conversations from park benches and windowsills.

The project began in 1961 when the CIA implanted a battery and a microphone into a cat and turned its tail into an antenna. However, the cat wandered off when it was hungry, a problem that had to be addressed in another operation. Finally, after five years, several surgeries, intensive training and $15 million, the cat was ready for its first field test.

The CIA drove the cat to a Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. and let it out of a parked van across the street. The cat walked into the road and was immediately hit by a taxi. Operation Acoustic Kitty was declared a failure and completely abandoned in 1967.

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Soldier bear

Photo: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Voytek was just a baby brown bear when the Second Polish Transport Company found him wandering the hills of Iran in 1943. The soldiers took him in, feeding him condensed milk, and before long he became a part of the unit — even enjoying beers and cigarettes with his fellow soldiers.

As Voytek grew into a 6-foot, 250-pound bear, he was trained to carry mortar shells and boxes of ammunition during battle, and in 1944 he was officially enlisted in the Polish Army — complete with name, rank and number. The bear traveled with his unit, carried ammunition to soldiers under fire and once even discovered an Arab spy hiding in the unit’s bath hut. After the war, the Edinburgh Zoo became Voytek’s new home and he lived there until he died in 1963.

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War pigeons

Photo: PDSA

Homing pigeons were widely used by both American and British forces during World War II. In fact, the U.S. Army had an entire Pigeon Breeding and Training Center at Fort Monmouth, N.J., where the pigeons were trained to carry small capsules containing messages, maps, photographs and cameras. Military historians claim that more than 90 percent of all pigeon-carried messages sent by the U.S. Army during the war were received.

The birds even participated in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944 because troops operated under radio silence. The pigeons sent information about German positions on Normandy beaches and reported back on the success of the mission. In fact, homing pigeons played such an important military role that 32 were awarded the Dickin Medal, Britain’s highest award for animal valor. Recipients of the medal include the U.S. Army Pigeon Service’s bird G.I. Joe (pictured) and the Irish pigeon known as Paddy.

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Leg-cuffing sea lions

Photo: United States Navy

Trained sea lions, part of the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, locate and tag mines just like dolphins, but that’s not all these “Navy Seals” do — they also cuff underwater intruders. The sea lions carry a spring clamp in their mouths that can be attached to a swimmer or diver by simply pressing it against the person’s leg. In fact, the sea lions are so fast that the clamp is on before the swimmer is even aware of it. Once a person is clamped, sailors aboard ships can pull the swimmer out of the water by the rope attached to the clamp.

These specially trained sea lions, part of the Navy’s Shallow Water Intruder Detection System, patrol Navy bases and were even deployed to protect ships from terrorists in the Persian Gulf.

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Bat bombs

Photo: senee sriyota/Shutterstock

Toward the end of World War II, the Air Force was looking for a more effective way to attack Japanese cities when Dr. Lytle S. Adams, a dental surgeon, contacted the White House with an idea. Adams suggested strapping small incendiary devices to bats, loading them into cages shaped like bombshells and dropping them from a plane. Bats would then escape from the shells and find their way into factories and other buildings where they would rest until their miniature bombs exploded.

The U.S. military began developing these “bat bombs” in the early 1940s, but the first test went awry when the bats set fire to an Air Force base in Carlsbad, New Mexico. After that, the project was turned over to the Navy, which completed a successful proof concept where the bats were released over a mock-up of a Japanese city. More tests were scheduled for the summer of 1944, but the program was canceled because of its slow progress. The U.S. military invested an estimated $2 million in the project.