This November, the BC SPCA joins fellow Canadians in remembering and honouring the men and women who have risked or lost their lives in times of war. While doing so, we also recognize the contributions and sacrifices of the millions of war animals.
“The number of animals who have been used in war is actually quite staggering,” says Craig Naherniak, BC SPCA general manager of humane education. In World War I alone, eight million horses were killed and another 2.5 million injured transporting soldiers, arms and supplies into battle.
Perhaps not surprisingly, dogs have also played a significant role in wartimes, rescuing soldiers and civilians, delivering messages, acting as watchdogs and detecting dangerous gases, explosives and landmines. “Some dogs even parachuted behind enemy lines,” says Naherniak.
Along with horses and dogs, the list of types of animals employed in war is extensive, from birds and rodents sent into tunnels to detect poisonous gas to donkeys, reindeer and elephants used to carry heavy loads. Animals have also been kept by military units as pets and mascots, offering comfort and companionship and helping to boost morale among troops. Cats have often fallen into this category, though they have also served by catching rats on ships and carrying messages around their necks onto the battlefield.
Naherniak adds that even animals as small as glowworms have been used in war. “They gave off soft light that allowed soldiers to see maps and messages in the dark, without tipping off the enemy.”
At both a national and international level, efforts have been made to officially commemorate the service of war animals. In London, the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park officially opened on Nov. 24, 2004; its inscription includes the words, “They had no choice.” Taking its cue from the London memorial, the Canadian Animals in War Dedication was unveiled in Ottawa’s Confederation Park on Nov. 3, 2012.
Individual animals have also been honoured. The Dickin Medal, also known as the animals’ Victoria Cross, was established in 1943 to recognize animals who had shown “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” From 1943 to 1949, 54 animals received the medal. Amongst them were dogs, horses and one cat, but the majority of recipients were carrier pigeons. With a good sense of direction and the ability to fly up to 100 kilometres an hour, these animals flew through difficult weather conditions and direct gunfire to deliver important messages, saving lives as a result.
After 51 years, the Dickin Medal was revived in 2000 to honour Gander, a Newfoundland dog whose actions saved the lives of Canadian infantrymen during the Battle of Lye Mun in December 1941. Most recently, in April 2014, a dog named Sasha, who served as an arms and explosives search dog in Afghanistan, was posthumously awarded the medal.
While recognizing the contributions of Dickin Medal recipients, Naherniak notes that for every brave animal like Sasha or Gander, there are hundreds of thousands of anonymous war animals. “Countless animals, named and unnamed, have served and saved human lives in the process. This Remembrance Day, let’s remember and honour them all.”
The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.