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10 Plans to Weaponize Animals

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These Dogs Were Bred to Hunt Bears—Now They Help Them

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Animals have been getting roped into human warfare for millennia and have played many parts in and out of battle: the practice of using war horses dates back to as early as 4000 BCE, while trained specialists like carrier pigeons and the much-decorated Sergeant Stubby (whose 1926 New York Times obituary noted the dog had “[entered] Valhalla”) have been celebrated for their crucial contributions to modern warfare.

But while Hannibal’s elephants made all the history books for their (almost entirely fatal) battlefield glory, thousands of animals have endured testing—and even occasional deployment—as living deliverers of disease, flying bombs, and detonators on legs in almost total obscurity. 

To honor our feathered and furry friends who almost performed the ultimate sacrifice in war (or, in some cases, very much did), here are 10 military plans to weaponize animals.

1. COLD WAR NUKES KEPT COZY (‘TIL DETONATION) UNDER LIVE CHICKENS.

As was summarized by the BBC, a 1957 document reveals a plan—one seriously considered by the British Civil Service—to bury a seven-ton nuclear land mine in West German soil as a preventative measure against any encroaching Red Army forces. However, as the BBC points out, “nuclear physicists at the Aldermaston nuclear research station in Berkshire were worried about how to keep the land mine at the correct temperature when buried underground.”

The proposed solution, according to this document, was to fill the bomb’s casing with live chickens, which, “given seed to keep them alive and stopped from pecking at the wiring,” would generate enough heat living out the rest of their poultry lives “to ensure the bomb worked when buried for a week,” after which it would be detonated remotely. Thankfully for the birds (and West Germans), the plan was never realized.

2. EXPLODING (DEAD) RATS HIDDEN IN COAL SHIPMENTS …

The British Special Operations’ idea to slip explosive-filled dead rats in enemy coal loads was developed in 1941, the BBC notes, and sought “to blow up the enemy’s boilers … with the fuse being lit when the rat was shovelled into the fire.” Dead-rat warfare was never put into practice, though, “as the first consignment was seized by the Germans and the secret was blown.”

The BBC points out that German military leaders “were fascinated by the idea, however, and the rats were exhibited at the top military schools,” leading German forces to perform searches of their coal stores for rat bombs before satisfying themselves that the plan had fizzled out. As to where British forces got their supplies of dead rats, it was a fair example of the Biblical idiom “they know not what they do” come to life: “The source of the dead rats was a London supplier, who was under the mistaken belief that it was for London University.”

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3. … AND SOVIET RATS THAT FUNCTIONED AS BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS.

During the same war, Soviet military researchers proved that a rat’s value as a weapon isn’t limited to being stuffed with explosives. In 1942, Soviet forces used disease-bearing rats against Friedrich von Paulus’s troops during the Battle of Stalingrad; rather than attempt to sicken the Germans with plague or anthrax—which was too dangerous for their own side as well—the Soviets instead infected rats with tularemia, a serious bacterial infection that causes weakness, fever, and skin ulcers at the site of infection. The result? As biological weapons experts Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas explain:

At first, the success was surprising: Without reaching the Volga, Paulus was forced to halt his attack at Stalingrad [and] approximately 50 percent of the German soldiers who entered the Soviet camps after the Battle of Stalingrad suffered classical symptoms of tularemia. Unfortunately, however … [the] disease cross the frontline, and Soviet soldiers filled the infirmaries. 

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