Eccentric Animals III

While hanging out at the beach this weekend, where we could see the USS Ronald Reagan parked in the harbor for the weekend, Daniel, Kierstin, and I were wondering if it would be possible to swim out anywhere near the boat and how close anyone could get. I had heard recently that dolphins and sea lions were trained by the military to do various tasks. Since my last animal-based trivia post ended with rocket cats, the crazy medieval invention that would propel cats over castle walls and set the enemy ablaze, I thought it’d be interesting to include some more trivia along this theme.

It’s fairly common knowledge that horses, elephants, and camels have been used as cavalry for hundreds of years, but there are few unconventional uses for animals that end up being pretty intriguing. Still, it is extremely unfortunate that some of these animals have been unwillingly integrated into mankind’s wars.  While reading this, consider that soldiers volunteer, but animals cannot make such a choice. They deserve great recognition for this and for their actions.

Marine Mammal Program

Dolphins and sea lions are trained by the US Navy in San Diego, CA. Starting in 1960, Navy scientists began looking at how dolphins glide through water, hoping to apply a sleek hydrodynamic design to torpedoes.  While observing the dolphins, the researchers noted their exceptional intelligence, incomparable diving skills, and their response to incentives. They soon realized that dolphins, and later sea lions, could be trained to do various tasks.

Typically, sea lions and dolphins act as minesweepers, sentries, and searchers. Bottlenose dolphins are trained to search and mark underwater mines. The dolphins utilize their excellent sonar to find and mark the mines by leaving a weighted buoy line adjacent to the mine. Sea lions have excellent eyesight and are able to dexterously attach clamps to objects – like a diver’s leg, allowing its trainers to reel the infiltrating diver.

The marine mammals were first used in the Vietnam War. It was rumored that the Navy trained the animals to kill, but investigations in the late 80s and early 90s revealed this to be a fabrication ultimately rooted in a fictional book. The investigations brought about a declassification of the training program though to enable scrutiny by the public. The mammals are typically well-fed and in good health. The animals are no longer taken from the wild as of 1998. Still, the program will cease in 2017 when plans to replace the minesweeping sea creatures with robots will be implemented.

Spying Cats

Project Acoustic Kitty was launched by CIA in the middle of the Cold War. The cats were implanted with a battery, microphone, and antenna so that they could record and transmit audio. The idea was that the cats could be released in the USSR to spy on the Kremlin inconspicuously.

The first cat was released outside a Soviet compound in Washington, D.C. It has been reported that the cat was nearly immediately hit by a taxi and killed, but this is disputed by former members of the CIA. Ultimately, the project was scrapped due to training difficulty. It was believed that over $25 million was wasted for surgical costs and training.


Private Wojtek carried out typical duties during the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War II. He bravely transported shells to the front lines as a part of the Polish Army’s 22nd Artillery Supply Company. He did his best to raise company morale. He epitomized a classic soldier, often enjoying beer and cigarettes while not on the battle lines. Private Wojtek, though, was a bear.

Standing at 6-feet tall and weighing over 500 pounds, Wojtek, which derives from the Polish phrase for “smiling warrior”, was a Syrian brown bear adopted by Polish soldiers. He was found in Iran as a cub and was quickly welcomed into the Polish army. He raised troop morale just by his presence, but he also participated as a soldier. He would help refine hand-to-hand combat skills by wrestling with other soldiers and was even taught to salute. He drank beer and was said to have smoked cigarettes. After the war, he was granted haven in a zoo. He has been honored by Poland with a statue in the capital city.

Pigeon-Guided Missiles

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, an American psychologist and behaviorist most famously known for the Skinner Box, came up with the idea of using pigeons to guide missile. Homing pigeons had been used as messengers for centuries and Skinner believed they could be trained to guide missiles. Skinner’s research began before radar was widespread. Planes would have to get too close to ships to hit their target and would often get shot down.

The pigeons were outfitted with a metal clip on their beak and trained to peck at an image that looked similar to a ship. The intention was that the pigeons would be mounted onto a missile. Three lenses mounted on the front of the missile would project an image of the target. The pigeon would peck at the image. If the image was off-center, the missile would correct its course based on the pigeon’s peck. The project dissolved before any missiles were launched though. Skinner believed that people inherently could not trust his pigeons no matter how well they were trained. Eventually, electronic guidance systems provided a pigeon-free method of missile guiding.



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