Opinion

Have we gone too far in making animals the beasts of our burdens? | Opinion

In 2017, royal eagle catches a drone in flight during a military exercise at the Mont-de-Marsan airbase, in southwestern France.
In 2017, royal eagle catches a drone in flight during a military exercise at the Mont-de-Marsan airbase, in southwestern France. Getty Images

The majestic eagle is the latest animal to arrive to save our bacon. Since as recently as 2017, the French military has been experimenting with the use of America’s national bird to defend the Élysée Palace against hostile drones. Soaring and swooping, these powerful birds are trained to take down the buzzing tech-copters that could pick off a president.

Various species have long been our best friends, living and protecting us from myriad threats. Whether domesticated or trained wild animals, their actions and instincts provide essential security in wartime and peace.

Shakespeare may have coined the term “dogs of war,” but canine companions began hunting and guarding as early as Ancient Greece. Larger beasts of burden, from earliest historical accounts, were essential to armies around the world.

These time-worn practices are far from outmoded. While Hannibal used elephants to cross the Alps to attack Rome in 218 B.C., Chinese troops today still ride yaks to patrol wilderness regions along remote borders. U.S. Green Berets train with pack animals in California’s high Sierras while braying, stubborn asses were instrumental in the fight against the Afghan Taliban.

Cetaceans have been drafted into overt and covert services for more than half a century. The U.S. Navy started recruiting dolphins and whales to aid sailors in the 1960s. Recently, a Russian beluga whale spotted off the Norwegian coast wore what looked like espionage equipment.

Many see pressing animals into dangerous service as inhumane and cruel, but the practice always needs to be weighed against the potential for human loss. This is a “speciesist” argument —

that human lives are worth more than the lives of pets. Are they? It’s a debate worth having. We are increasingly deploying eagles, dogs and dolphins against growing tech threats, big bombs and drone delivery systems.

We are fine with insentient robots roaming factory floors and building lobbies, cutting out the doorman and night watchman. But when it comes to animals, Americans and Brits have a particularly sentimental and protective partiality that privileges pets over people.

Our sensibilities are heightened when the human-animal relationship includes an element of affection. These bonds are subjective, of course, but we find humanity, or at least “personality,” in animals.

Go to almost any American movie and watch a modern film where murder and mayhem run rampant. Spectators seem desensitized to death, sometimes even rooting for the massacre of black hats and bad guys. But provide graphic footage of an animal, injured or killed, and the audience audibly expresses its dismay and shock. In fact, the action is so disturbing to the audience that Hollywood movies always add a reassuring disclaimer in the credits that no animals were harmed.

In real life, however, animals are tested, trained and, sometimes, traumatized to save our souls. The overuse of emotional support pets has at times hit extreme levels and questionable practice. Recently, a pair of Middle Eastern men brought hunting falcons aboard an airplane as medical-exemption support animals.

It’s a touchy subject, and there is reason to empathize with defenseless, easy-to-victimize animals. Maybe we’ve overly anthropomorphized our furry and feathered friends. Perhaps we should blame the vast cast of animated creatures from the venerable houses of Disney, Warner Bros. and other legacy studios that created Mr. Ed, the talking horse, to the new digital generation of incredible chattering critters. Regardless, somewhere along the way we’ve gotten soft and angry at the utilitarian use of species that can perform a service.

Have we gone too far?

If our political goal is to draw attention to the inhumanity of China’s human-rights policies, for example, it might serve us better to point out the nation’s practice of torturing dogs before feasting on them at an annual festival and killing cats rather than to talk about the million Uighur citizens who are in concentration camps, detention centers and harsh re-education prisons.

Capital punishment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia might be tough to contemplate. In fact, the Trump administration accepts the killing of journalists as the strategic cost of doing business. Given this indifference to human suffering, perhaps U.S. lawmakers should condemn Jeddah’s animal cruelty to focus the American public’s mind on how the kingdom mistreats not only its domesticated animals but its humans, too.

Maybe that’s why robots are the long-term answer. The expense and deployment is currently prohibitive for most of the functions performed today. So for now — from bomb-sniffing to drug detection, ship stalking to drone downing — the use and potential abuse of man’s best friends is with us to sit and stay.

Markos Kounalakis grew up with farm dogs — mainly collies all named Lassie — but is petless these days as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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