Animals At War: Ethical Questions

April 8, 2003 By Steve Grant, Lifestyle Correspondent

Is an animal’s life more expendable than a human life? Is life any less precious to an animal than it is to a human?

These are philosophical questions, the kind that could fuel an hourlong argument in a college dorm, but they are far from abstract thumb-suckers.

America is at war, and animals have been deployed to do certain tasks, usually to take advantage of one of their especially acute senses. And that can put the animals at risk.

Already, a team of highly trained dolphins dispatched by the Navy to find mines in the waters off Iraq has brought to the surface questions about the appropriate use of animals in war.

These are big, ethical questions, difficult to answer, and resistant to consensus. Should we have the consent of an animal before it takes on a dangerous task? If so, how do we do that?

Willing or not, animals have been used in warfare for centuries, and they often make the ultimate sacrifice. Even when animals are not intentionally deployed in war, they often get killed anyway.

“War does a number on animals,” said Lori Gruen, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University.

Who knows how many horses have been shot from under cavalry troops? How many animals have been incidentally killed in aerial bombardment? How many animals have stumbled upon mines in places like Afghanistan? How many animals have been herded ahead of people crossing a minefield?

Chickens and pigs are being used in Kuwait to detect poison gas. Dogs were used in Vietnam to detect mines, and are in service in the Iraq war, too, to sniff out weapons and help rescue soldiers. Besides the dolphins, sea lions, with superior hearing and the ability to see underwater in near darkness, may be deployed in waters off Iraq to alert U.S. forces to underwater intruders.

Some animal-rights groups have already made their feelings clear.

“Wars are human endeavors. While a person, a political party or a nation may decide that war is necessary, the animals never do,” Stephanie Boyles, of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week.

Of the dolphins and other animals in the Iraq war, she said: “These animals never enlisted.” PETA wants the military to stop using them.

Joyce DiBenedetto-Colton, coordinator of the Miami-Dade Community College Animal Ethics Study Center, asks a series of questions when considering the ethics of using animals for wartime tasks.

Is it a job that humans have done? In the case of the dolphins identifying mines, the answer is clearly yes, she said.

Are the dolphins doing the task willingly? Certainly, she says. “Dolphins can be very cooperative and perform these things willingly.”

Where things get dicey, she said, is the question “Are they aware they are taking on great risk?” Here the answer in Iraq probably is no, she said. As in the case of a soldier, she said, “If we knowingly send someone to their death without their consent, then is that morally right? I think we’d have to say, no, it is not.”

DiBenedetto-Colton said she believes handlers should also get an animal’s consent before placing the animal in danger. With a highly intelligent animal like a dolphin, that may be possible, she said.

The Navy, which deployed the dolphins and sea lions, insists the whole question is moot — it says the animals are in no danger to begin with. Critics are skeptical.

The mines in question, off Umm Qasr, are not like those used in World War II, which explode when struck, according to a Navy spokesman. The mines off Umm Qasr lie on the bottom and are triggered by a massive presence of metal — like a ship, said Tom LaPuzza, public-affairs officer for the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego.

“They are purposely set to not go off if a fish or shark or dolphin goes by,” he said.

The dolphins are trained to use their biological sonar to detect a mine, then place a small marker nearby. They do not touch the mine.

“The danger lies in dealing with the mine,” LaPuzza said, and that work is done by Navy or Marine divers. “The human divers are principally the ones at risk.”

Wesleyan’s Gruen, saying she did not have a good sense of the risk involved for the dolphins, said it was important in either case not to deceive an animal.

“To them, what they are doing may appear as a game,” Gruen said, in effect exploiting and deceiving them, which she said would be “objectionable.”

“There is an element of responsibility; humans have to treat the animals well, and treat them in ways that don’t put them at risk,” Gruen said.

LaPuzza said he is certain the Navy meets that standard.

“We believe if you treat the animals with proper care and respect that it is not immoral to use them for purposes like this,” he said. “You basically take advantage of their sensory capabilities; you ask the animal to find something for you. And when it does that, you say, `You are now free to go. We’ll deal with the danger.'”

One dolphin, Takoma, disappeared during duty off Iraq, but was relocated later. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals cited the disappearance as evidence the animals could not be counted on to provide reliable defense — and should be sent home.

LaPuzza said dolphins will occasionally stray in unfamiliar waters, but that the loss of a dolphin is rare. More important, they are doing their job, he said.

A combination of dolphins, humans and unmanned undersea vehicles cleared enough mines to allow the British ship Sir Galahad to dock in Umm Qasr and unload humanitarian supplies, he said. A more sustained effort will now be launched to clear a much wider sea lane to allow freer access to coalition ships.

Steve Grant writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Co. newspaper.