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The Amazing Animals of the War on Terrorism

Much of the world is currently locked in a seemingly never ending war on terrorism. In this ongoing battle, a great amount of money and resources have been called into play. New ways to counter the threat of terrorists are constantly being pursued and developed, but perhaps the most unusual area of pursuit lies in the use of animals as antiterrorism weapons.

The fact is that for all of our technology, sometimes there are things that only nature has been able to perfect. Animals display a plethora of abilities that science has so far been unable to mimic with technology, and so we use these attributes to aid us in our struggle with terrorism. Whether one agrees with this practice or not, there have been several projects to use anti-terrorism animals.

Here we will look at a few of the more unusual.

Bees

Britain has come up with a novel way to combat threats to national security; the humble honeybee.

The plan is to use bees to sniff out and identify a wide variety of dangerous substances such as explosives and illicit drugs. Bees have an incredibly acute sense of smell, with an olfactory ability on par with the more commonly used dogs. By training bees to pick out certain scents in association with a reward, researchers on the project say they can teach the bees to identify practically any odor. One researcher on the project, a Dr. Nesbit, stated that bees can sense some odors that are present in parts per trillion, likening it to  detecting a grain of salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

Since bees are plentiful, cheaper and faster to train, and easier to keep than dogs, it is thought that they may soon replace or augment their canine colleagues in certain areas of homeland security, such as airport security and the military, as well as other potential applications like the medical field and food quality control.

The process begins with training the bees to identify odors with a reward. To do this, scientists utilize a simple Pavlovian method. The bees are put into individual compartments and the scent which they are meant to identify, such as explosives residue, is wafted over them from tubes placed in front of them. The bees are simultaneously rewarded with drops of sugar water, which they extend their proboscises to receive. If the training is successful, the bees ideally will identify the desired odor and automatically stick out their proboscis in anticipation of a reward. This is the signal to human handlers that the scent has been identified.

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The training can be completed in only a few hours, making it relatively cheap and practical compared to using other animals such as dogs. Researchers insist that none of the bees are harmed during the process, and that they are used in shifts of two days, after which they are allowed back into their colony unharmed.

In practice, the bees could be used in a variety of ways. One idea is to keep the bees in a ventilated box and put the box where security is searching for dangerous goods. Tubes within the box would send puffs of air to the stationary bees and a video camera with recognition software would monitor the activity of the bees’ proboscises. Another method of use would involve letting the bees loose, whereupon they would swarm to the suspicious scent. This could have additional military applications such as land mine detection in the field.

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At the moment, the bees are mostly being conditioned to identify explosives, but the potential is vast. In addition to military and security applications, it is thought that the bees could be used to sniff out food contaminants, making them useful in the food industry. The medical field could also benefit from the technology, as some diseases are linked to specific odors in the breath or urine which the bees could be used to detect.

Crows

A curious avenue of experimental research into identifying known terrorists has been the use of crows to pick out a suspicious face from a crowd.

The reasoning behind the research lies in the fact that in addition to high intelligence and an exceptional long-term memory, crows also happen to possess extremely acute discriminatory abilities. Simply put, crows have an astonishing talent for remembering and picking out individual faces, even those of human beings.

John Marzluff, a Wildlife Sciences Professor at the University of Washington, explained that the military approached him to study this ability of crows for possible use in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists at large.

Marzluff’s team did a study in which they wore caveman masks while tagging crows around campus. This angered the crows, and they took to swooping down and harassing the researchers when they wore the masks. However, when the masks were removed, the crows left them alone. It wasn’t just any mask that would set them off, either. It was found that even if others were wearing slightly different masks, the crows would specifically target the particular mask of their tormentor. Other independent tests have also demonstrated the birds’s remarkable ability to recognize and remember individual human faces.

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It is thought that this acute ability to recognize faces is the effect of a cognitive process that plays some role in helping the crows to visually identify other individuals of their own species. In the field as a weapon against terrorism, theoretically the crows would be trained to identify a suspicious or wanted person and indicate the persons’s presence to their handlers.

In addition to hunting down terrorists, it is thought that crows could also potentially be used in search and rescue operations.

Dolphins and Sea Lions

Since the 1960s, the US military has been engaged in training dolphins and sea lions for a wide variety of applications, such as detecting underwater mines and swimmers, recovering inert torpedoes and other instrumentation lost at sea, and testing naval equipment. The once top secret program, which is based in Point Loma Naval Base in San Diego, remained classified until the 1990s.

One of the key areas of using marine animals for antiterrorist measures is identifying and intercepting hostile swimmers. This is seen as a very real threat, as enemy swimmers can use swimming into vulnerable areas under cover of night as an effective way to infiltrate and cause damage. The problem was further brought to light when information emerged in 2002 outlining terrorist plans to target American ships in port or at anchor. It is such a concern, that a whole domain of port and harbor security is devoted to defense against potential enemy swimmers.

Enduring Freedom

Such threats are one of the reasons the Marine Mammal Program was started in the first place. To this end, dolphins are highly prized for their echolocation abilities, which allow them to quickly detect swimmers, and sea lions are valued for their amazingly keen eyesight. There is simply no way a hostile swimmer can evade these marine animals in their own environment.

When patrolling for swimmers, dolphins are trained to identify a potential aggressor and drop a beacon at the location, whereupon a patrol will lock in on the position and apprehend the suspect. Sea lions use a different approach. When a sea lion intercepts a potential enemy, it attaches a clamp to the person’s leg. The clamp is connected to a long line, and the suspect is subsequently reeled in to be questioned.

Military sea lion utilizing a leg clamp.

Military sea lion utilizing a leg clamp.

The military claims that the marine mammals can be loaded into specially designed C-130 cargo planes and deployed anywhere in the world within 72 hours. The animals have been deployed in combat in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, and are currently used to guard certain highly sensitive locations, such as nuclear submarines in their homeports of Bremerton, Washington, and Groton, Connecticut. Military dolphins were also used to patrol San Diego Bay in 1996 during the Republican National Convention.

Currently, the Marine Mammal Program keeps and trains around 75 Pacific bottlenose dolphins and 35 sea lions. The program employs not only military personnel, but also civilian biologists, handlers, veterinarians, and researchers. The estimated annual operating budget for the program is 20 million US dollars.

Rats

One of humanity’s most potent weapons of terror is the land mine. These underground explosive devices have been used in conflicts all over the world and are doubly dangerous since they can remain deadly long after a conflict has ended, posing a threat to civilians and the economy, especially in developing nations.

Land mines are used as both defensive weapons of war as well as weapons of terror due to their ability to instill fear and panic. This makes them very popular among guerilla movements as well as terrorists. Many IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) used by terrorists and insurgent groups in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are makeshift land mines.

Thousands of people a year continue to be killed or seriously injured by land mines, many of which were set long ago and forgotten. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that up to 800 people are killed and 1,200 maimed or injured every month across 78 countries. Often these victims are innocent women and children. In response, governments have spent considerable resources on finding ways to find and deactivate mines.

The African coastal nation of Mozambique is one place that has been plagued with land mines since its struggle for independence between 1964-1975 and the two decade long civil war that followed. During the conflict, tens of thousands of land mines were planted across the country, many of which remain in the ground to this day, just as deadly as they ever were. It is in this land mine ravaged land that a new and unique method of mine detection is being developed.

Location of Mozambique.

Location of Mozambique.

Since 2006, specially trained African pouched giant rats have been scouring the countryside looking for mines. The use of Mine Detection Rats was first conceived of and implemented by a Belgian NGO called Apopo, which specializes in developing applications for rats in a variety of situations.

The large African rats offer many advantages in the area of mine detection. The rats have a remarkably keen sense of smell, on par with dogs, allowing them to sniff out explosives, even when buried. They are also plentiful, and easy and cheap to keep, breed, and maintain. In addition, the rats are highly intelligent, which makes it easy to train them to do repetitive tasks.

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The biggest advantage of using rats to detect mines lies in their size and speed. Unlike human, robot, or canine mine detection units, the rats used in the program are too small and light to set off land mines. Their small size also means that transporting the rats to mine infested areas is easier than hauling machinery or other mine detecting animals such as dogs.

In the field, the rats are hooked up to a harness that is in turned attached to a line set up over a suspicious area. The rats are then allowed to roam across the line sniffing at the ground. When a mine is detected, the rat gives a signal to its handler, usually a brisk scratching at the ground, whereupon mine deactivation and removal can commence.

In the field, the rats’ amazing sense of smell gives them some advantages over traditional mine detection techniques such as metal detectors. When a metal detector is used, it makes no distinction between a mine or a simple can buried in the ground. When the metal detector goes off, the team has to dig up whatever is is, mine or not. The rats, on the other hand, only sniff out explosives, and they can also identify mines made of plastics. This makes them much faster and more accurate than other methods, with far fewer false positives. A properly trained rat can do in one day what would take a human two weeks with other methods.

The mine clearing rats are currently employed in Thailand and Mozambique, with plans to expand operations. Apopo estimates that since the rats were put into the field in 2006, they’ve successfully cleared more than 6 million square meters of Mozambique’s countryside, uncovering 2,406 landmines, 992 bombs, and 13,025 small arms and ammunitions.

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The war on terror seems to have no end in sight. It becomes a more difficult and costly battle as time goes on, and a great many people are hard at work developing new technologies to wage it. Yet in some areas, it seems there is just no match for what nature can offer. Until we come up with our own methods of comparable effectiveness, it looks like for the foreseeable future some animals will continue to be on the front lines of the never ending fight against terror, using their unique abilities to make the world a safer place.

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