Sea lions, dolphins aid U.S. troops

Aquatic mammals trained to mark marine mines, disable enemy divers

War In Iraq

March 26, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Troops in Iraq are getting unprecedented help from the animal kingdom.

The Navy has a new detachment of sea lions in the Persian Gulf, ready to hunt and place underwater handcuffs on enemy divers.

Trained dolphins, which have seen service since the Vietnam War, are patrolling gulf waters to help clear shipping lanes of mines.

On land, Marines are using pigeons as an early warning system to detect chemical weapons.

Military officials say the animals are a cost-effective way to save lives and argue that their potential outweighs the minimal danger.

"We're not putting these animals at any risk," said Thomas LaPuzza, a spokesman at the Point Loma Submarine Base in San Diego, where 20 sea lions and 75 dolphins have been trained.

"The mines they're detecting are a danger to ships, not to dolphins."

But the programs worry animal rights advocates.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, said she's as concerned as anyone about the war's human death toll, but putting animals in harm's way might be unethical.

"We don't like it. They're wild animals. They aren't volunteers - they were drafted," Rose said.

The Navy has spent four decades researching potential missions for aquatic animals, including a variety of whales.

Its aquatic workhorse, though, is the bottle-nosed dolphin, which protected Navy divers in Vietnam in the 1970s and U.S. ships in Bahrain in the 1980s.

Dolphins make ideal students. Experts say they're as easy to train as intelligent dogs, can respond to dozens of signals, have excellent natural "sonar" and dive as deep as 1,500 feet.

Today, they're taught to find mines and mark them with floating buoys.

"They're very versatile animals," said David Schofield, a marine mammal expert at the National Aquarium. He emphasized that he neither endorsed nor opposed the Navy's program.

The Navy's California sea lions, which can dive as deep as 1,000 feet, are normally trained to recover unarmed practice mines after training exercises. But their directional hearing, excellent low-light vision and ability to make repeated deep dives make them ideal for a more complex mission, officials say.

Now they're in a combat zone for the first time, in a demonstration project to see how well they can patrol for enemy frogmen and capture them.

Here's how the system works: The sea lion carries in its mouth a clamp attached to a long rope. When it spots an enemy diver, the animal sneaks up, slaps the clamp on his leg, and then darts away while sailors on the surface haul up the frogman.

LaPuzza said the sea lions were sent to the gulf only to demonstrate their capabilities. But he added, "They could decide to use them tomorrow."

While the Navy takes pains to protect its dolphins and sea lions, the Marines' pigeons aren't so lucky. Their high respiratory rates make them more susceptible to chemical weapons than humans, so they're an expendable early-warning system.

"These pigeons may well be like the canaries in the coal mines," said Dr. Charles Walcott, a Cornell University ornithologist. "They're easy to care for and easy to transport, so they seem like a logical choice."

But the Marines aren't depending on pigeons alone. In fact, some military experts say the birds are not as sensitive as the high-tech sensors and other tools that all Marine and Army units carry.

The new equipment can detect gas clouds as far as 3 miles away, and all troops have protective suits that are lighter and more effective than those used in 1991.

They also carry antidotes in pills and in hypodermic syringes they can inject if they are exposed to nerve gas or chemical agents.

Lt. Col. Rudy Burwell, an Army spokesman, said the birds are strictly a Marine operation.

"The Army's not using animals of any sort. We don't recommend it for our people," he said.

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