Sweeping aerial footage of the Australian scrub, filmed by a drone, is interrupted by a wedge-tailed eagle.

This video became a minor Web sensation in 2015, back when consumer drones were still relatively new gadgets.

I think this novelty contributed to the video’s appeal in an interesting way. Our society is fuelled by, and immersed in, the conviction that technological progress will unlock unimagined realms of experience of the world around us – in this case, we’re given a first-hand glimpse of the last thing a prey-bird ever sees! The video therefore combines a nod towards tech-utopianism with the thrill and awe of witnessing the natural world’s muscular badassery.

But, thrill and awe notwithstanding, one inevitably feels a deep twinge of sadness for the eagle, who may be portrayed as a powerful aggressor and the victor of the encounter, but only in the most superficial of readings. A more sombre explanation for the video’s popularity could be that we viewers feel unconsciously driven to bear witness to the violations of nature by our beloved technology. The ongoing, frequently brutal onslaught of our world upon theirs. Perhaps the video is merely a means to digest this reality without the pain of confronting it, or a means to confront it without the pain of accepting it.

Following this, I’m tempted to think that mixed in to the stew is a vindictive glee at the humbling of technology (and maybe a dash of Schadenfreude towards the dandy whose toy got smashed). I suspect many of us are secretly terrified of technology not only because of what it may do to nature, but because of what it may do to us. (After all, “drone” is common parlance for both frivolous flying cameras and the military’s remote-controlled killers.)

Amusingly and alarmingly (and defying synthesis with the hodge-podge of points made above), the release of the eagle video was swiftly followed by reports that both the Dutch police and the French army had started training eagles to take down illegally-operating drones.

"Anti-Drone Eagles" on XKCD.

Eagles are not the only animals to have been conscripted into police or military service. Many of us will be acquainted, for instance, with police dogs. And of course there are the battalions of horses, camels, homing pigeons, elephants, and even dolphins, sacrificed over the centuries in times of war.

In London, there’s a memorial dedicated to the animal victims of the 20th century’s wars. Though it’s situated on a strip of grass between two busy roads (the kind of place one passes but never visits), the thought is nevertheless touching. An inscription on the monument simply reads, ‘They had no choice.’.

London monument to animals killed in war.

While some animal species have played decisive roles in the theatre of human conflict (and others have been completely spared the spectacle), there are a good many which were auditioned but narrowly failed the cut. In this post, I’ll delve into the stories of two members of this latter category: seagulls and dairy cattle.

How to Find a Submarine with a Sausage

Our first tale takes place during the First World War, when the British Empire possessed the most powerful navy in the world. The Royal Navy had led the way in modernising and expanding its military forces (at substantial cost, I should add), and British merchant vessels comprised roughly half the world’s shipping tonnage. Before 1914, Britain’s anticipated wartime strategy relied heavily on this maritime preeminence: on being able to maintain steady trade with allies, colonies, and neutral countries, while disrupting enemy supply routes. For the small island to lose this upper hand would be calamitous.

The problem for Britain was that the other colonial powers were well aware of the tactical advantages of a formidable navy. Germany, for instance, sandwiched between its traditional enemies France and Russia, also needed secure access to ocean trade – either via the North Sea or the Mediterranean – and so a strong navy was indispensable for them too.

Such tensions resulted, from the 1890s onward, in an arms race which strained the finances of every major power, as they sought to build ever larger fleets, and keep them up to date with advances in weaponry, armour and speed. Few had anticipated that a radical new technology might push it all into obsolescence…

Submarines, or U-boats, seriously undermined the dominance of heavily armed battleships. There’s no use in being able to fire a fourteen-inch shell over the horizon if you can be easily sunk by a near-invisible torpedo fired from a near-invisible submarine at short range. Battleship commanders, responsible for the most expensive and technologically advanced weapons in the world, found themselves unable to leave the safety of the harbour.

Left: a fleet of battleships in 1916, with HMS Colossus in the foreground. Right: a German U-boat, also 1916.

The German navy had been an early adopter and great innovator in U-boat technology, and used them to devastating effect against the merchant ships supplying the Allied war effort. By 1916, one quarter of ships bound for British ports never made it. This prompted widespread fears in government circles and across the country that the country would soon be starved into surrender.

To shore up the nation’s morale, British authorities started giving newspapers fake shipping reports to publish – ones which downplayed losses and exaggerated the number of successful voyages. Meanwhile, the government and the military scrambled to find ingenious ways of detecting and neutralising submarines. Anything would be better than what had been initially cobbled together: a conscripted fleet of unarmed fishing vessels, whose pilots would scan the horizon for periscopes and, upon sighting one, swim over to it and try to smash it with a hammer.

In search of a better solution, the government’s Board of Invention and Research solicited ideas from the public and were quickly inundated with well-meaning but absurd suggestions. One respondent (a farmer) recommended padding ships with hay to make them more resistant to torpedo attack. Another advocated covering the sea with a film of paint, to coat and blind any periscope that broke the surface. And a psychic, who claimed to be able to locate submarines with a charmed needle, made it as far as the admiralty’s fleet operations room before they were dismissed.

Returning to the subject of animals in warfare, another remarkable idea (which was seriously pursued), was to train wild seagulls to find enemy submarines and alert nearby ships of their presence.

The reasoning was as follows. Gulls are obviously good at spotting fish swimming under water. If they could somehow be convinced that periscopes were just as interesting as fish, then flocks of gulls would serve as a conspicuous yet innocuous warning sign to nearby ship captains.

From the San Francisco Chronicle, 1918. The text in the lower left reads: 'How the Sea Gulls, Following U-Boats for their Feast, Hang About The Neck of the Kaiser's Gross Admiral, Spelling The End of the Lawless Submarine'.

More specifically, the plan was to recruit engineers to design and build dummy periscopes which would be towed behind British ships to simulate a submarine in pursuit. To entice the seagulls, the dummies would be equipped a mechanism for expelling food, like buoyant sausage meat, at regular intervals. In theory, the gulls would learn to associate periscopes with food, so that when a real submarine showed up, they’d all congregate expectantly around it.

Thomas Mill's patented 'Sea Gull Decoy', September 1917.

The idea got a mixed reception (to put it lightly), but the government persevered; and so it was that cabinet ministers and naval officers had to sit around a table with civilian scientists, engineers and psychologists, bird enthusiasts, and circus-animal trainers to discuss the project.

Prominent ornithologists William Hudson and Richard Kearton in particular were recruited to spearhead the project and assess whether the gulls would be trainable in a reasonable time frame. Combining their knowledge of bird behaviour with the new and exciting psychology of conditioning (Ivan Pavlov had published his work on dogs in 1897, and had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904), these two scientists were thrilled to contribute meaningfully to the war effort, and simultaneously promote their field of study to national importance. (Whether their devotion to the doomed seagull programme did more harm than good is another matter, but it’s unfair to judge them with hindsight.)

A prototype device was built in 1916, and trials were scheduled. But the naval captains found the whole business preposterous, and worse, a waste of naval time and resources, and worse still, yet another example of governmental interference in military affairs. Their vocal reluctance to cooperate delayed the trials almost indefinitely (the archive holds some wonderfully petulant letters penned by the captains in response to panglossian pleadings on the part of the bird scientists).

In 1917 the project was finally scrapped, when the USA’s entry into the war enabled a change in naval tactics along more palatable military lines – having access to a lot more warships meant they could implement a new system for escorting vulnerable cargoes, and the vastly expanded manufacturing capacity allowed them to rapidly ramp up production of depth charges and other anti-submarine munitions. The seagulls, fortunately for them, were quickly forgotten as an embarrassing footnote in the Royal Navy’s glorious history.

Cows in Vietnam

Whereas the seagull plan was publicly discussed in newspapers at the time, other military operations only come to light decades after the files are closed. In 2001, for instance, the CIA disclosed that they’d tried to train wiretapped cats to listen in on Soviet politicians and officers. The project was nicknamed “Acoustic Kitty”, and consumed millions of dollars before the researchers realised that cats were not obedient enough to be useful spies.

Schematic for the CIA's Acoustic Kitty project.

Another (fruitless) animal-related programme from the US military was recently (2014) pieced together from a combination of documents declassified through official channels, and some others uploaded to WikiLeaks. Project Cloven, as it was known, was instigated in response to backlash over the US-Vietnam War, and its core element was training cattle to recognise enemy threats. Before we get to them, here’s a bit of background.

By the late 1960s, popular opposition to the war had become a political nightmare. Indiscriminate bombing campaigns, killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, had horrified US citizens and severely tarnished the USA’s international reputation. Meanwhile, the body count of American soldiers continued to rise. The military had to find a way of refining its battle tactics without risking the lives of additional soldiers.

A possible solution was mooted under the auspices of AGILE, a network of projects run by the Department of Defence’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Established in 1961, AGILE encompassed weapons design, vehicle design, communications, reconnaissance imaging, navigation, troop psychology, chemical warfare, and more. A 1970 meeting between the executive chiefs of Subprojects III and V – Major General L. Saltram and Brigadier General A. Eisenfeur respectively – culminated in the top secret Project Cloven, whose goal might be described today as the development of a rudimentary armed drone.

At the time, ARPA had already built (or retrofitted) helicopters which were operable by remote control, so that trained personnel could pilot the vehicle from afar (provided they had a line of sight to it). But this was of limited usefulness because there was no way to beam images from the helicopter back to base in real time. (Even if there had been enough bandwidth and processing power to send digital images, the electronic CCD was still three years away from being invented.) If the objective was to carry out attack missions with minimal civilian casualties, there’d still have to be somebody on board to judiciously fire the helicopter’s cannon or drop its bombs.

Military helicopters of the type used by the US against the Vietnamese.

Since the AGILE researchers wanted to develop technology to keep US soldiers out of harm’s way, they needed to design a trustworthy weapons system that would recognise, and fire upon, enemy combatants in the absence of a human operator.

Somewhere along the line, they started to consider training animals to operate the guns. The available records don’t specify what options they considered, except there are hints that they experimented unsuccessfully with dogs (perhaps dogs’ colour vision wasn’t good enough or something). If they tried horses, they might have found them too panicky. And as we know, the CIA had already failed to coax cats into service.

It seems that AGILE made the most progress with dairy calves; and they discovered, surprisingly quickly I think, that the calves were easier to train if they were first medicated with a combination of amphetamine and dronabinyl (an extract from the cannabis plant) – this calmed the animals while enhancing their focus and attention.

There are so many questions one could ask about this project. What was the training procedure? Did they build custom choppers to house the calves? How many different drugs did they trial, and where did they get them? For that matter, where did they get the cattle? And ow did they sneak them in to government research facilities? Alas, we’ll have to wait for more records to be declassified before we get to the bottom of the story.

What we do know is that there were some promising results, and even a couple of successful test missions, so I guess the drugged calves could recognise human targets and operate the weapons to kill them. But it was clearly an experimental project at the fringes of military science, and despite the reports of improving performance, the whole thing was abandoned in 1972, and its resources directed elsewhere. I guess the steaks were too high.

I performed an ad-libbed version of this at the Gometra Theatre Festival in August 2017. And I got to tell the seagull story back in 2016 on an episode of the game-show podcast “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” (here, starting at 12.22).