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Dolphins of War To The Front-Line!

Mission at the Gulf for Flipper & Co. – What special ability makes people risk the dolphins' lives?

War dolphins in service for the US-Navy: This chap was trained on foto shooting
Picture by US-Navy

Of course, military use of animals is not new. Warriors always took advantage of the speed of horses, elephants were consulted because of their force, pigeons delivered messages and dogs scent the enemy. So, why is there so much excitement about the dolphins and sea lions which the US Marine uses in Irak now and which were brought to top secret mission in Vietnam in the sixties? There are many points of view concerning this topic.

The most common opinion is that trained animals may not be deployed on military mission as well as in circus in the civilised 21st century, because both is considered as cruelty to animals. But what about horses? Aren't they just production animals, like oxens who pull the plough? It was an unwritten battle law not to shoot on war horses, only to throw down the warrior was allowed. Not the horses were the ones which threatened in hostile intent. And when the warrior was knocked out, the horse became harmless and could also be used by the enemy as mount - it became kind of "neutral".

It's a different thing with dolphins. This is a result of their intelligence as well as the kind of mission for which they are consulted. It is well-known that the US Navy started a so-called 'dolphin programme' in 1960, in which are invested 10 to 20 million Dollar each year until today. They had discovered that dolphins have a very sensitive orientation system, which, together with their high intelligence, cannot be reached even by modern computer technology. With this "biologic sonar" they are able to create an exact image of their environment, even in the dark and in spite of many background noises. You can imagine it like this: If people had this ability, they could yodel on a mountain, in dense fog, and just from the echo they could say if the alpine hut vis-Ó-vis has a chimney and how many cows graze there.

Dolphins in action: Just like human NAVY soldiers they are taken to the front-line in boats
Picture by US-Navy

Nowadays, the US Marine takes advantage of this ability to remove mines of the conquered Iraqui harbour Umm Qasr, which endanger access of vessels which deliver aid supplies and troops as well. Navy-spokesman Tom Lapuzza: 'The animals search with their sensitive sonar for mines in the muddy water of the harbour. The mines are no danger for them, they also do not explode when bigger fish swim by coincidentially. If they find one, they give a signal to their trainer at the surface, as they press their snout on a plate on the boat-side. Then they deposit a buoy with an anchor at the habitat, so the navy-divers can look for it and remove the mine. Other dolphins can silently fix stroboscope lights on the back of suspicious divers, so we can find underwater-terrorists. As long as there is no technical solution for it, the dolphins are essential for us.'

From the Navy's point of view this sounds clean and simple. But animal-rights activists see it from a different angle. Ulrich Karlowski, expert from the German association for the rescue of the dolphins, says: 'The animals are not only trained to search for mines. In the Vietnam War there existed torpedo-dolphins, living guided missiles, which let bombs explode on vessel bodies. Besides, some animals were trained to attack people with nose-weapons. But today this would be kept top secret, of course. Training and transport of the animals are as hard as for humans, the stress is immense and many of the animals get sick.'

The difference of consulting dolphins and horses now is easy to explain. The enemy would consider dolphins as dangerous and would disarm them. The most common way is to switch off their orientation system by painful background noises. Another mode is to kill the animals, who are on mission thinking they would play a game. Because of the high intelligence of the dolphins, many opponents see no difference to the teenagers who were sent to clear minefields in the Iran-Iraq-War and who were promised to get a paradisiac life after death.

Bionics, the fusion of technics and biology which often seems so fascinating, has to be strictly declined in this case.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (06-04-03) – Contact