These Are the Most Surprising Animals to Serve in the U.S. Military and Law Enforcement

Most people know dogs serve in the U.S. military. But did you know other animals lend a hand — or paw — behind the scenes? Animals have played a part in wars for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that mankind still turns to them for help. Read on to learn about the most surprising animals who’ve served in the military and law enforcement over the years. You won’t believe the tiny creature who sniffs out bombs for the military (page 9).

1. 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, receives an evaluation aboard the USS Gunston Hall. | Brien Aho/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

How they help: find underwater mines and flag enemy swimmers

The Russian government made headlines in 2016 when word got out that Moscow wanted to buy five combat dolphins. But as Slate noted, “Assembling a dolphin army wasn’t the Russians’ idea. It was ours.”

In the ’60s, military researchers realized dolphins were highly trainable, with diving skills and finely-tuned sonar. This led to the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Training Program, which boasted more than 150 dolphins at its peak in 1995.

NextThe military stopped its cruel use of this animal.

2. Monkeys

Monkey Family

The military injected monkeys to simulate nerve gas attacks. |

How they helped: nerve gas attack simulations

The military occasionally alarms animal welfare activists. The public once learned the U.S. 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 to respond to chemical attacks. Eventually, the Army announced its decision to switch to trained actors, computer programs, and patient simulators instead.

Next: We’re relieved the Army didn’t follow through with this project.

3. Bats

Flying Bat

A giant bomb full of bats sounds like a nightmare. | Ian Waldie/Getty Images

How they helped: inspire bomb research

During World War II, researchers had the nightmarish plan to deploy a bomb full of bats (each carrying a tiny bomb) to Japanese cities. The bats would fly into the city and look for nooks and crannies to roost in all over the city. Then, the bombs would detonate after a certain amount of time, sending the cities up in flames. The military named the initiative “Project X-Ray.” Despite many tests, they never deployed the bat bomb.

Next: One of the most dangerous ocean creatures play a part in 

4. 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

How they help: to help the military better find things underwater

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded research to learn how sharks detect things that don’t belong in the water. Sharks can track chemical plumes, so researchers implanted electrodes into sharks’ brains to learn what part of the brain they used to sense the plume.

Researchers even developed an implant that would enable them to manipulate the shark’s brain signals in an attempt to control the animal’s movements and perhaps turn the sharks into spies.

Next: This team of animal spies hoped to find Osama bin Laden.

5. Crows

A crow flies

Crows are extremely intelligent animals. | Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

How they help: recognize missing soldiers and opposition

Several years ago, the U.S. Military worked with John Marzluff, a Wildlife Sciences Professor at the University of Washington, to assess crows’ ability to identify human faces. They hoped to create a team of “spy crows” who could recognize missing soldiers as well as hunt for wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Crows use tools in the wild and can solve complex problems. And these highly intelligent birds learned to identify and harass Marzluff and his researchers when they wore specific rubber masks. When they don’t wear the masks, the crows leave them alone. The professor told KSHB, “You could replace the caveman mask with an Osama mask, harass or even kill crows, and then wait for word to spread through the entire crow-nation.”

NextPerhaps the army’s most practical four-legged friend

6. Donkeys

A U.S. soldier greets a donkey in Afghanistan.

A U.S. soldier greets a donkey in Afghanistan. | Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

How they help: carry supplies

From ancient Rome to the United States, militaries have used donkeys to haul heavy loads and injured men, as well as keep spirits up among animal-loving service members.

Mules eventually became the preferred equine of the U.S. military because they can carry more weight than donkeys and withstand harsher conditions than horses. However, some military trainees still work with both donkeys and mules, especially since donkeys are easier to purchase in combat zones like Afghanistan.

In the end, the military didn’t move forward with their spy crows. Luckily, they caught bin Laden anyway.

Next: This animal can be much more than a tender or nugget.

7. Chickens

a free-range chicken exits the coop

Soldiers care for chickens on base. | Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

How they help: warn of impending chemical attacks

With a weak respiratory system, a chicken can sound the alarm on a chemical attack. So, the U.S. Military employed this tactic with their front-line units in Kuwait, according to ABC. Army Sgt. Rodney Brown was a tank mechanic and chicken caretaker with the Delta Company’s 2nd Tank Battalion. His three chickens lived in a pen and ate a simple corn mixture — far less costly than high-tech, man-made detectors that frequently malfunction.

The military actually first utilized chickens to detect chemical attacks during the Gulf War. Officially called “Poultry Chemical Confirmation Devices,” many marines referred to the project as “Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken,” or “KFC.”

Next: So much aid from such a little animal

8. Beetles

Beetle on leaves

Researchers implanted the beetles with electrodes to control their movements. | Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

How they help: surveillance and search-and-rescue missions

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (a U.S. Department of Defense agency) funded studies involving beetles implanted with electrodes and radio receivers. The technology enables researchers to wirelessly control the beetles.

Researchers decided to “meld insect and machine” to take advantage of the beetles’ ability to take in sensory feedback and maintain stable flight while using little energy. They can control the beetle by sending a signal to the wing muscles. The size of the beetle species used — the giant flower beetle — allows it to carry a heavy payload, such as the camera and heat sensor it would need to take part in search and rescue missions.

NextThe military gives us another reason to save this insect.

9. Bees

A researcher collects a bee from a hive

Bees are crucial to the environment and could be helpful for the military. | Natalie Behring/Getty Images

How they help: detect traces of explosives

Surprisingly, honeybees may be better than dogs at sniffing out bombs, too. Bees typically sniff out tiny particles of pollen. But it turns out they can be trained to expect the smell of sugar water after the smell of the chemical components of dynamite, C-4, or liquid bombs.

Using this tactic, DARPA researchers trained bees to swarm around chemical residues left by bombs. They even fitted bees with tiny radio transmitters so they could find the bees — and bombs — wherever they swarmed.

Next: An odd choice to detect explosives.

10. Moths

A large moth rests on a man's face

The military considered moths for use on undercover missions. | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

How they help: fly undercover missions

Researchers have also investigated using moths for the U.S. military. They used microfluidics to manipulate moths’ metabolism, which dictated when and for how long the moths could flap their wings. They also used electrical stimulation to influence the moths’ flapping and flight direction.

The specific insects used in the study — a species of tobacco hornworm moth with a large wingspan — could eventually be deployed to hazardous areas to find explosives or detect buried land mines.

Next: A better use for these mammals than Sea World entertainers

11. 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 completes the U.S. Navy’s Shallow Water Intruder Detection System training off the Persian Gulf. | Bob Houlihan/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

How they help: identify intruders swimming in restricted areas and find and retrieve lost equipment

It’s not just dolphins who participate in the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Training Program. In 2015, the Navy had 90 dolphins and 50 California sea lions — and a $28 million annual budget to train them.

While sea lions don’t have sonar capabilities, they do have excellent eyesight. They excel at finding and retrieving unarmed test ordnance, like practice mines. Some can even clamp on a diver’s leg to let handlers reel them in. Sea lions are also amphibious, which makes them even more versatile.

Next: The military got creative with this animal ally.

12. Lobsters

Lobster on ocean floor

Real lobsters were just the inspiration. | Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

How they help: inspire research for bomb sensors

Researchers repeatedly take cues from nature to solve problems and advance technology, especially robotics. In fact, Navy researchers created the Biomimetic Underwater Robot, or “the Robolobster” as some called it.

The researchers don’t use real lobsters. Instead, they built a robotic lobster that moves like the real thing. They use electronic nervous systems, actuators, and sensors to look for mines and bombs along the ocean floor. The lobster’s design  — both organic and robotic — makes it ideal for navigating the rough surf zone.

Next: An unexpected source of sustenance for the U.S. Navy

13. 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

How they help: provide fresh dairy

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

Stories conflict as to exactly why the Naval Academy adopted the goat as its mascot. However, dozens of them have served as the official mascot over the years.

Next: You’d think this pet and water wouldn’t mix.

14. Cats

A sailor holds the ship's feline mascot, Minnie.

A sailor holds the ship’s feline mascot, Minnie. | Fox Photos/Getty Images

How they help: pest control

Dogs have an obvious place in military and law enforcement. But did you know cats have also helped U.S. service members? You would think they’d stay on solid ground, but cats have lived on navy vessels to keep vermin at bay.

Cats have served in the military in other capacities, too. To eavesdrop on the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., researchers planned to deploy cats surgically implanted with microphones and radio transmitters in a CIA operation code-named “Acoustic Kitty.” They eventually scrapped the effort, concluding it “would not be practical” to keep training cats as spies.

NextThis rodent is a lot more useful than you think.

15. Rats

Rat in a tunnel

They were trained to detect landmines. | AFP/Getty Images

How they help: detect bombs and landmines

Under the aptly named “Rugged Automated Training System” program, the U.S. Army sponsors research on a low-cost system for training rats to detect anything from explosives to humans buried in earthquake rubble.

Training dogs to do these tasks is expensive, and dogs can be hard to transport. Rats, however, could be easier to train and require less travel space.

NextThis hearty animal can withstand war zones.

16. Mules

A U.S. Marine pack mule participates in the Tournament of Roses parade.

A U.S. Marine pack mule participates in the Tournament of Roses parade. | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

How they help: carry heavy loads of supplies

Mules have long played a role in the U.S. military. In the 1940s, the Army thought it should teach them to skydive, which didn’t end well. Despite advances in technology, mules can still help the military. Soldiers must carry a lot of supplies on war zone foot patrols. In Afghanistan, they could have as much as 100 pounds of equipment, even as they climbed mountains.

Scientists in the army floated the idea of a 21st-century Animal Corps, including pack mules to help soldiers carry their gear. Progress toward robots rugged enough to navigate war zones has been slow. So ground-combat units in the Marines and Special Forces adopted Afghan mules — and the Army is following suit.

NextThe original stealthy way to deliver messages

17. 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 ‘back carrier’ message capsule in 1945. | Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How they help: communication to and from remote areas

Militaries around the world have long used pigeons. Carrier pigeons carried messages in situations and terrains where people couldn’t practically transmit radio communications.

The U.S. military didn’t discontinue its pigeon program until 1957. By then, pigeon-based equipment had its own communications system designation. Some pigeons even won medals for their services, such as a pigeon named Cher Ami, who saved the lives of many U.S. soldiers during World War I.

NextOne of the most ancient military animals can still help today.

18. Elephants

A baby elephant of the Sri Lanka Army

Many countries have used elephants in warfare and as mascots. | Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

How they help: identifying explosives by smell

In antiquity, elephants participated in wars in Asia and beyond. But the U.S. military has used elephants, too.

Researchers not only trained elephants to sniff out 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 prove true that “an elephant never forgets.” But when it comes to locating TNT, they seem pretty sharp.

NextThis military mammal is making a comeback.

19. Horses

Soldiers take care of their military horses.

Soldiers take care of their military horses. | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

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.

NextCivilians admire 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

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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