You know the song? A four legged friend will never let you down? Unfortunately, we let them down too often. Working animals tend to get a raw deal. Their conditions of work would be totally unacceptable for people. Rarely do they retire or get a pension. Before it became fashionable to feel sentimental about animals, working dogs and horses were often shot when they became unable to perform their tasks. For thousands of years, animals were exploited remorselessly, and assumed not to suffer physical or emotional pain. In the late eighteenth century, intellectuals started to question the assumption that animals didn’t suffer under human exploitation, but it wasn’t until 1824 that a group of influential British men – including the leader of the movement to abolish slavery: William Wilberforce – started the organisation which later became the RSPCA.
Early during the Ukraine conflict a Russian army unit retreated and left a military dog behind. The dog reportedly switched sides and worked with Ukrainian forces to help clear mines. In warfare dogs carry out many tasks, and in Soviet days the Russians trained dogs to attack enemy tanks with explosives strapped to their bodies. The Russians don’t limit their use of animals to four legged ones: the Russian Navy train Bottle-nosed Dolphins to act as underwater guards to protect their fleet from enemy divers, both arming them with harpoons and – similarly to the ‘anti-tank dogs’ – explosives. It certainly lends a sinister potential to the old children’s TV show; ‘Flipper’. So far as I’m aware, Australian forces don’t use Skippy for similar purposes.
Exploitation doesn’t end with sea-mammals. Birds too have had roles in serving people. RAF bombers in World War Two flew with carrier pigeons aboard. One, named Winkie, was awarded the Dickin Medal in December 1943 for helping to rescue the crew of a Beaufighter which had crashed into the sea. The Dickin Medal is awarded to service animals for service to people on conflicts. It is considered the animal VC and bears the words; ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We also serve’. Awarded by the PDSA, it’s even been given to a ship’s cat, Simon, who survived injuries from a cannon shell and subsequently killed a rat infestation on board!
Canaries have been used to detect gas in mines, geese have been famed for raising the alarm when attacks were attempted, and various breeds of birds of prey have been put to work to keep airports clear of flocks of other birds which endanger jet aircraft. Some have even been trained to attack drones.
Dogs are our most versatile animal partners, well known as assistance animals, serving people with vision impairments, hearing difficulties and even those with conditions such as epilepsy, for which they are trained to predict seizures. There is proven value in enabling people to spend time with animals, and an organisation named Pets As Therapy helps to match pets and their owners with others who will benefit from the encounter. Dogs can be trained to discover drugs and search for casualties, and even to detect specific medical conditions.
Horses too have been our allies, companions, and therapy. They have served and died in our wars and been injured when used by police in crowd control roles. A proposal to make injuring service animals liable to a sentence of five years imprisonment failed to be adopted as law just before the pandemic.
Retired Service Animals Charity
Lady Bathurst’s National Foundation for Retired Service Animals, which aims to provide for Police dogs and horses, Fire and Rescue dogs, prison dogs and Border Force dogs will enable us to repay
some of the animals that work for our welfare. Find out more at: www.nfrsa.org .uk
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