New row erupts over use of animals in war

Russian spy: Kremlin-controlled media has mocked news of ‘Comrade Belugov’ the whale.

A funny-looking Russian spy is in the news this morning — a (very friendly) beluga whale. It may seem cute, but the use of military mammals is widespread and many are furious about it.

In all the papers this morning: one of the most extraordinary stories of the year opens a window onto the murky world of global spying and the potential abuse of animal intelligence for human gain.

A group of Norwegian fishermen have made a strange discovery: a beluga whale wearing a harness, floating in the waters just off the side of their boat.

The whale seemed tame and comfortable in the presence of humans, but the harness it was wearing looked far too tight. The fishermen were worried, so they contacted a group of scientists to see if they could try and save it.

The scientists managed to remove the harness. When they did, they spotted some text on it: “Equipment of St. Petersburg”.

Researchers say that the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering new speculations about a sea mammal special operations programme that the Russian navy is believed to have pursued for years.

In 1980s Soviet Russia, a programme saw dolphins recruited for military training: their razor-sharp vision, stealth and good memory making them them effective underwater tools for detecting weapons.

This mammal programme closed in the 1990s. However, a 2017 report by TV Zvezda, a station owned by the defence ministry, revealed that the Russian navy has again been training beluga whales, seals and bottlenose dolphins for military purposes in polar waters.

America, for its part, trains dolphins as well as sea lions under the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, based in San Diego, California.

It has been claimed military dolphins have been trained to carry poison darts, lay underwater mines, locate enemy fighters, or even to seek and destroy submarines using kamikaze methods.

Animals have been serving in the military as early as 1908, when Germans first attached cameras to pigeons to take aerial photographs.

In 2011, Saudi authorities arrested a high-flying vulture on suspicion that it was flying missions for Israel’s famously ingenious Mossad agency. And a spate of shark attacks near the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2010 was blamed by one TV station on GPS-controlled predators planted by Israel in order to harm the Egyptian tourism industry.

In 2007, the Iranian army arrested a team of 14 “spy squirrels” found near a nuclear enrichment plant. Officials said they succeeded in apprehending the suspects “before they were able to take any action”.

The CIA’s attempt to implant listening devices into a cat — dubbed Operation Acoustic Kitty — ended in failure on day one, when the kitty was run over by a car outside the Soviet embassy in Washington DC. The project was estimated to have cost £10 million.

Another failed project was the Bat Bomb, tried by America in World War Two, where bats were strapped to mini-incendiary devices and dropped over Japan. The idea was for them to roost inside wooden, Japanese buildings before bursting into flames.

Breaking the rules?

Isn’t this cruel and illegal? “Even wars have rules,” says William Rossiter, head of whale charity Cetacean Society International. “It is evil, unethical and immoral to use innocents in war because they cannot understand the purpose or the danger. Their resistance is weak, and it is not their conflict.”

On the other hand, some animals are simply better than machines or humans at the job. And they save lives. “We treat the animals with the utmost respect,” says a US Navy spokesman. “We don’t send them out to do anything that’s dangerous for them.”

You Decide

  1. Is it cruel to train animals to work for humans?
  2. Should animals only be used to do things that are morally right?


  1. Imagine your favourite animal is a spy. Have fun writing an imaginary page out of their diary, describing a dangerous mission and some of the scrapes they might get into. Let your mind run free.
  2. “This house believes animals should never be used in war.” Hold a class debate on this motion.

Some People Say...

“This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be?”

Michael Morpurgo (from War Horse)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The US Navy first began working with dolphins in 1960, when researchers at the Naval Ordnance Test Station facility at Pt. Mugu, California, sought to improve torpedo design by studying the animals’ hydrodynamic efficiency. In 1965, a Navy-trained, Atlantic bottle-nose named Tuffy dived 200 feet to carry tools and messages to crew members in SEALAB II off California’s coast. In 1970, the presence of five Navy dolphins discouraged underwater saboteurs from entering the water and blowing up a US Army pier in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. In 1987 and 1988, five dolphins patrolled the waters around the USS La Salle off the coast of Bahrain.
What do we not know?
Whether the US Navy has ever trained its marine mammals to injure humans or to carry weapons capable of destroying ships. It strongly denies this.

Word Watch

Beluga whale
Beautiful and expressive, beluga whales are known as the canaries of the sea. But like the fate of many a songbird, belugas are continually exploited and held captive for human entertainment.
St. Petersburg
Saint Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city after Moscow. “St Petersburg’s splendour goes hand-in-hand with corruption, crime, decay, squalor and pollution, though this gritty reality makes the city’s dazzling façades and lightness of spirit even more magical,” says The Lonely Planet guide.
TV Zvezda
A Russian nationwide TV network run by the Ministry of Defence.
GPS (Global Positioning System) is a satellite-based positioning and navigation system owned and operated by the US Department of Defence. In this case, the sharks were thought to be remote-controlled.

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