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.

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.

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?


  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.

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 to improve torpedo design by studying how the animals moved at speed through water. In 1965, a Navy-trained, bottle nose dolphin named Tuffy dived 200 feet to carry tools and messages off California’s coast. In 1970, five Navy dolphins stopped underwater attackers from entering the water and blowing up a US Army pier in Vietnam. In 1987 and 1988, five dolphins patrolled the waters around a Russian ship, USS La Salle, off the coast of Bahrain.
What do we not know?
Whether the US Navy has ever trained its sea 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 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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