Did You Know These Surprising Animals Served in the U.S. Military?

Most people know dogs serve in the U.S. military. But did you know other animals lend a hand (or paw)? These are the most surprising animals who have served in law enforcement and the military. Do you know which animal is better at sniffing out bombs than dogs (page 9)?

1. Cats

A sailor holds the ship's feline mascot, Minnie.
A sailor holds the ship’s feline mascot, Minnie. | Fox Photos/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Navy
  • How they help: pest control

Cats have lived on navy vessels to prevent vermin for years. They’ve also served in the military in other ways. To eavesdrop on the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., researchers planned to use felines implanted with microphones and radio transmitters in a CIA operation called “Acoustic Kitty.” They finally scrapped it as not “practical” to train spy cats.

The U.S. Navy used the next animal for its intelligence and underwater sonar abilities.

2. Dolphins

Hefi, a bottlenose dolphin, receives a routine evaluation aboard the USS Gunston Hall, which conducts water mine counter measure operations
Hefi, a bottlenose dolphin, is evaluated aboard the USS Gunston Hall. | Brien Aho/U.S. Navy/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Navy
  • How they help: find underwater mines and flag enemy swimmers

In 2016, the Russian government wanted to buy five combat dolphins. But Slate noted, “A dolphin army wasn’t the Russians’ idea. It was ours.” In the ’60s, military researchers realized dolphins were highly trainable, with sonar and diving skills. This led to the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Training Program, which had over 150 dolphins at its peak in 1995.

The following little insect was prepared to help in search-and-rescue missions using its wings.

3. Beetles

Beetle on leaves
Beetles were implanted with electrodes to control their movements. | Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: surveillance and search-and-rescue missions

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded studies where electrodes and radio receivers were fixed on beetles. The technology could wirelessly control the insects via their wing muscles. The species used (the giant flower beetle) can carry heavy loads like the camera and heat sensor needed for search-and-rescue missions.

Can you guess the next military animal, a hooved helper who can withstand war zones other mammals cannot?

4. Mules

A U.S. Marine pack mule participates in the Tournament of Roses parade.
A U.S. Marine pack mule participates in a parade. | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Marines, Special Forces, and the Army
  • How they help: carry heavy loads of supplies

In the ’40s, the Army wanted to teach mules to skydive, which didn’t end well. But this animal still helps. Soldiers carry up to 100 pounds of supplies in war zones like Afghanistan. Progress toward robots that can navigate war zones has been slow. So ground-combat units in the Marines and Special Forces adopted Afghan mules, and the Army followed suit.

The next animal is an underwater predator the military hoped would help detect things that don’t belong in the water.

5. Sharks

a close-up of a tiger shark face from the left
They’re able to detect things that shouldn’t be in the water. | Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Navy
  • How they help: find chemicals underwater and spy on others

Sharks can track chemical plumes, so the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency implanted electrodes into the animals’ brains to learn how they sense plumes. They even developed an implant that manages their brain signals to control movements and turn the sharks into spies.

Do you known which feathery friend helped deliver military messages where radio transmitters could not?

6. Pigeons

A military captain holds a carrier pigeon equipped with a 'back carrier' message capsule in 1945.
A military captain holds a carrier pigeon equipped with a message capsule in 1945. | Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: communication to and from remote areas

Militaries around the world have long used pigeons. Carrier pigeons carried messages in situations where people couldn’t transmit radio signals. Some pigeons even won medals for their service, like a pigeon named Cher Ami, who saved the lives of many U.S. soldiers during World War I. In fact, the U.S. didn’t end its pigeon program until 1957.

Do you know which military animal swims to keep the U.S. safe?

7. Sea lions

Zak, a 375-pound California sea lion completes the U.S. Navy's Shallow Water Intruder Detection System training off the Persian Gulf.
Zak, a 375-pound California sea lion does the Shallow Water Intruder Detection System. | Bob Houlihan/U.S. Navy/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Navy
  • How they help: identify intruders in restricted underwater areas and find and retrieve lost equipment

Sea lions don’t have sonar abilities, but they do have excellent eyesight. They excel at finding mines, and some can even clamp down on a diver’s leg and reel them in. With a $28 million annual training budget, the Navy had 90 dolphins and 50 California sea lions in 2015.

The following little animal is a nuisance to homeowners but a lifesaver to the U.S. Army.

8. Rats

Rat in a tunnel
They were trained to detect landmines. | AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: detect bombs and landmines

Called the “Rugged Automated Training System” or RATS, the Army funds research on a low-cost system for training rats to detect anything from explosives to humans buried in earthquake rubble. Dogs are hard to transport and expensive to train. Rats, however, require less travel space.

Do you know which giant animal is better than military dogs at sniffing out bombs?

9. Elephants

A baby elephant of the Sri Lanka Army
Many countries have used elephants in warfare and as mascots. | Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: identifying explosives by scent

Elephants engaged in battle in Asia for thousands of years. But the U.S. uses elephants, too. Researchers not only trained elephants to find explosives, but they also found that elephants remember training longer than dogs. (The pachyderms have a keener sense of smell than canines, too.) It may not be true that “an elephant never forgets.” But as far as locating TNT, they’re pretty sharp.

The following military animal is also better at detecting bombs than canines. (It’s actually an insect.)

10. Bees

A researcher collects a bee from a hive
Bees are crucial to the environment and helpful to the military. | Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Honeybees sniff out bits of pollen. But they can also detect chemical parts of dynamite, C-4, and liquid bombs. So, DARPA trained bees to swarm the residue left by bombs. They even fitted the insects with radio transmitters so they could find the bees — and bombs — wherever they were.

Can you guess the army’s most practical hooved helper? Hint: It can carry more weight than donkeys and endure harsher conditions than horses.

11. Donkeys

A U.S. soldier greets a donkey in Afghanistan.
A U.S. soldier greets a donkey in Afghanistan. | Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: carry supplies

From ancient Rome to America, militaries have used donkeys to haul heavy loads, carry injured men, and boost the morale of service members. Mules are the preferred equine; they can carry heavier loads than donkeys and withstand harsher conditions than horses. However, militaries still work with donkeys, because they’re easier to obtain in combat zones.

The following winged insect intrudes on U.S. homes but can also visit hazardous areas to detect bombs.

12. Moths

A large moth rests on a man's face
The military considered moths for use on undercover missions. | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Researchers manipulated moths’ metabolism to dictate when and how long the moths flapped their wings. They also used electrical stimulation to control the moths’ flight direction. The insects used in the study — a species of tobacco hornworm moth with a large wingspan — could eventually find explosives or buried land mines.

Can you guess which human-like creature the military had to stop using after upsetting animal-welfare activists?

13. Monkeys

Monkey Family
The military injected monkeys to simulate nerve gas attacks. | iStock.com/KCHANDE
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they helped: nerve gas attack simulations

The Army used monkeys in chemical warfare training. Researchers were injecting monkeys with a nerve-blocking drug to simulate a nerve gas attack and train medical personnel. Finally, the Army switched to trained actors, computer programs, and simulators instead.

Can you guess which clawed underwater comrade inspired the U.S. Navy to detect bombs?

14. Lobsters

Lobster on ocean floor
Real lobsters were just the inspiration. | Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Who they help: U.S. Navy
  • How they help: inspire research for bomb sensors

Researchers take cues from nature to advance technology, especially robotics. In fact, Navy researchers created “the Robolobster,” which moves like the real thing. They used electronic nervous systems and sensors to look for mines and bombs along the ocean floor. The lobster’s design makes it ideal for navigating the rough surf zone.

The following feathered friend has a weak respiratory system, so it can sound the alarm on chemical attacks.

15. Chickens

a free-range chicken exits the coop
Soldiers care for chickens on base. | Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: warn of impending chemical attacks

The military first used chickens to detect chemical attacks during the Gulf War, calling the project “Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken” or “KFC.” The U.S. Military also had chickens in Kuwait, says ABC. Army Sgt. Rodney Brown was a tank mechanic/chicken caretaker there. His three chickens were far less costly than high-tech detectors.

NextThis military mammal is making a comeback.

16. Horses

Soldiers take care of their military horses.
Soldiers take care of their military horses. | Jack Taylor/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army and Marine Corps
  • How they help: ceremonial purposes and in combat

Mounted police officers famously ride horses trained to stay calm and focused in chaotic situations. But the U.S. military still uses horses too.

Special Operations soldiers rode horses into battle against the Taliban during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. And the U.S. Marine Corps revived the horsemanship skills that were once crucial for the armed forces. Special Forces soldiers once again learn to care for horses, load packs, and calculate routes. Some instructors even considered training soldiers to shoot from a moving horse.W

With an innate ability to recognize human faces, the following team of highly-intelligent animal spies hoped to find Osama bin Laden.

17. Crows

A crow flies
Crows are extremely intelligent animals. | Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they help: recognize missing soldiers and opposition

The U.S. military once worked with researchers to assess crows’ ability to identify human faces. The birds learned to recognize and harass people who wore specific rubber masks. Although it didn’t work out, the military had hoped to create “spy crows” who could find missing soldiers as well as wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Do you konw which sure-footed farm animal provides the U.S. Navy with a surprising necessity at sea.

18. Goats

A goat watches Staff Sgt. Terry Lucas trim the hooves of another goat.
A goat watches Staff Sgt. Terry Lucas trim the hooves of another goat. | David McNew/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Navy
  • How they help: provide fresh dairy

The U.S. Naval Academy famously had a goat mascot. It’s surprising until you delve into the history of seafaring goats. When crews needed fresh dairy on board, they chose goats instead of cows due to their small size and sure footing. Goats also eat anything, unlike cows, and they can swim.

Military researchers wanted to use the following nocturnal creatures to blow up cities during World War II.

19. Bats

Flying Bat
A giant bomb full of bats sounds like a nightmare. | Ian Waldie/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army
  • How they helped: inspire bomb research

WWII researchers had a crazy plan to deploy a bomb full of bats (each carrying a tiny bomb) to Japanese cities. The bats would fly into the city and roost. Then, the bombs would detonate and destroy the city. The army called the project “Project X-Ray.” Despite testing, they never deployed the bat bomb.

The next Army animal may provide the ultimate military/animal bond.

20. Dogs

U.S. Army Specialist Justin Coletti of US Forces Afghanistan K-9 combat tracker team rests with Dasty, a Belgian Malinois, following a five-hour overnight air assault mission against the Taliban.
Justin Coletti of the U.S. Army’s Afghanistan K-9 combat team rests with Dasty, a Belgian Malinois, after a long air assault mission. | Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images
  • Who they help: U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and police forces
  • How they help: detect bombs, track enemies, and raise morale among troops

Sure, you probably aren’t surprised to read that dogs serve in the U.S. military and law enforcement. But you may be surprised by all the things canines can do.

Dogs have served alongside U.S. soldiers during every major conflict, but weren’t officially recognized until World War II. They can detect bombs, weapons, and drugs. Plus, they can track enemies. They provide troops not only with company, but with peace of mind. Various branches of the military use the German shepherd, the Belgian Malinois, and other breeds.

Next: The history of military animals

From test animals to valued comrades

A US soldier (R) and a Polish soldier handle a military dog inside the cabin of a UH-60 Black Hawk medevac helicopter.
A US soldier (R) and a Polish soldier handle a military dog inside the cabin of a UH-60 Black Hawk medevac helicopter. | Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

The history of war animals is pretty rough. It’s clear the U.S. military tested all kinds of high-powered weapons on mammals like dogs, cats, monkeys, goats, and pigs. In the ’80s, PETA put a stop to these procedures, and military training and research is better regulated now.

Now the U.S. Military prioritizes training and caring for their animals like they would any human soldier. Currently, about 1,600 military war dogs are in the field or helping recuperating veterans and about 700 veterinarians represent the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps around the world. These doctors maintain the health of military service animals and manage the health of animals who will eventually become food for the troops.

Next: The 3 bravest war animals include this hoofed hero.

1. Reckless, the Korean War horse

Reckless the war horse stands with his trainer
Reckless the War Horse demonstrated bravery and strength in battle. | YouTube

Bought by a lieutenant from the Seoul Race Track, Reckless served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Korean War. The small mare was allowed to roam through Marines’ tents, and she often swiped soldiers’ scrambled eggs, beer, Coke, and other food. Her main duty was going to and from ammo delivery sites; Reckless once made 51 solo trips under fire during a single battle. She also evacuated wounded soldiers, remaining calm during intense battles.

The hoofed hero received two promotions, a UN Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, and two Purple Hearts. Reckless joined 99 other Americans on Life magazine’s list of all-time heroes.

Next: This little canine became a military sergeant thanks to his courage.

2. Sergeant Stubby, the World War I dog

Sergeant Stubby stands in front of his regiment
Sergeant Stubby learned valuable skills to help save his WWI comrades. | YouTube

When a stray dog entered the 102nd Infantry’s training area, his ability to boost morale gave him a pass even though canines weren’t allowed with this regiment. The WWI soldiers taught Stubby, named for his little tail, all their drills, calls, and how to salute. When the regiment deployed, they smuggled Stubby onto their France-bound ship. The pup was allowed to stay after he was discovered, and he even joined his comrades on the front line for 17 battles.

Stubby’s battle skills included identifying wounded soldiers, warning about gas strikes, and attacking German soldiers. He received the title of Sergeant, joined the American Legion as a lifetime member, and received the gold hero dog’s medal.

Next: This avian hero was shot but kept flying.

3. Cher Ami, the WWI carrier pigeon

a soldier shows how a message is strapped to a carrier pigeon
Cher Ami served American soldiers in World War I. | Youtube

This little pigeon gained international fame when he was shot but kept flying, getting his crucial message to the recipients, which aided in the rescue of 194 soldiers during a fight known as the “Lost Battalion.” Named Cher Ami, or “dear friend” in French, the bird survived and received the French Croix de Guerre for his service. You can honor him at the Smithsonian, where his body is on display.

Additional reporting by Ali Harrison.

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