Written by Kevin Jennings
Humans have been training animals to do our bidding for thousands of years. One of the most versatile animals that we’ve trained is man’s best friend, the dog. We have seeing eye dogs for the blind, dogs that herd livestock, and dogs trained to search for anything from drugs to bombs to cadavers using only their sense of smell.
It is truly remarkable the variety of animals that we are able to train, but even more remarkable is the breadth of tasks which they can be used to accomplish. Today we’ll be looking at some of the most unusual and surprising things animals have been trained to do.
Most people know that dolphins are highly intelligent creatures. Many studies indicate that, aside from humans, dolphins are the smartest creatures in the world. They are fast learners who are able to demonstrate remarkable problem solving skills, the ability to innovate, and even a high degree of empathy.
Because of their intelligence and their use of echolocation, an innate form of sonar, dolphins are perfect for detecting mines in unclear water or at great depths. They have been employed by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program since 1959, along with sea lions, for this very purpose.
Not only are dolphins intelligent, they are also fearsome creatures. While many people think of sharks as the ocean’s most vicious predators, they will flee at the sight of a dolphin, and with good cause. Sharks are solitary and relatively slower creatures, while dolphins are fast and travel in pods. Dolphins don’t go around hunting sharks for fun, and a sick or weak dolphin may became a shark’s next meal, but dolphins can and will kill sharks when they need to.
We’re not suggesting that the military is employing dolphins as trained killers, but it wouldn’t be impossible, either. The question has been raised before and the U.S. Navy states that their dolphins are not trained to harm people, but America isn’t the only country with dolphins.
Russia has employed dolphins to protect their Black Sea naval base in Crimea during the invasion of Ukraine. There are two pens of dolphins located at the base, and it is believed that they are being used to detect enemy divers who may try to plant explosives there. Most likely they would just notify their trainers of the intruders, but we have yet to see exactly what they’re trained to do.
With the US, Russia, North Korea, and Israel all being known to have militarily trained dolphins, and with the incredible intelligence of versatility of these marine animals, it’s easy to think that their role in the military may someday move before merely detectors of underwater mines or swimmers.
An earthquake hits, and suddenly you find yourself pinned down under debris in a subway tunnel. You’re not bleeding so know that you’ll survive so long as a rescue team can find you, but you’re leg is broken and you can’t get the leverage to clear the fallen rocks off of yourself so you can try to crawl to freedom. It’s just a waiting game now, while you pray that the rescue crews find you in a timely fashion. That’s when the rats show up. Are your injuries worse than you realized and these scavengers have come to feast on your remains? No, they’ve come to help.
British scientist Dr. Donna Kean has been in Tanzania for the last year working with the organization APOPO, a Dutch acronym for what translates to “Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development”. Since 1997, APOPO has been working with southern giant pouched rats, training them to detect landmines and tuberculosis. The rats are so nimble that they have never once set off a mine, and the trained rats are nicknamed “Hero Rats”.
Because of their agility, small size, and the speed at which they can be trained, Dr. Kean has taken on yet another endeavor for these rats: earthquake search and rescue. Thus far seven rats have been trained, which the process taking two weeks.
Despite being the perfect animals to find people trapped in rubble and debris, rats can’t really do much to directly help a person at that point. That’s why these rats have been fitted with special backpacks containing a microphone, speaker, camera, and tracking device. All the rats need to do is find the trapped people, at which point the backpacks allow the human rescuers to see and communicate with the victims as well as to pinpoint the exact location.
Thus far, the Hero Rats have yet to perform any earthquake rescue duties in the real world and have been using a mock debris site. However, once the final model of their backpacks is completed they will be sent to Turkey, one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world, to work with real search and rescue teams.
They may not have field experience yet, but all of the training and mock rescues have yielded very promising results. It wouldn’t be surprising to see these rats making headlines again before the year is out.
Ferrets were first domesticated about 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greeks. Their primary jobs were always related to hunting, chiefly being used to control the population of rodents, rabbits, and other pest animals. Their secondary job was to be adorable.
The first recorded use of ferrets as a public service was by Caesar Augustus in 6 BC to stop a plague of rabbits in the Balearic Islands, and their use in hunting and pest control remained common for well over a thousand years. It has since become illegal to use ferrets for hunting in many locations.
No longer able to perform their most innate job, ferrets found a new means of employment in the most unlikely of ways: laying cable. Considering how much ferrets love to chew on power cords and electrical wires, this may seem like a match made in Hell. But not only have ferrets proven effective in this role, they have had several high profile gigs as well.
One of the first major uses of ferrets in this manner was by Boeing. In the 1960s, they began using ferrets to string wiring through planes. A thin guide wire would be attached to a ferret wearing a harness. It would then run through whatever tiny, cramped space was too difficult to wire otherwise. Once on the other end, the guide wire would be detached from the ferret and could be used to pull whatever wires or cables were necessary through the narrow enclosure.
Aircraft manufacturers and telephone companies made the most use of ferrets, but they were by no means alone. When the U.S. Air Force was installing its new Space Command missile warning system in 1999, they ran into a small problem. To connect the various computers, they were going to need to string cable through 40 foot long conduits that were already full of other wires.
The job would have taken hours upon hours for a human to try to perform by hand and been an expensive, logistical nightmare. Fortunately, a Lieutenant Colonel on site happened to own a pet ferret and remembered this fun fact about them being used to aid in wiring. It took his ferret, Misty, a single hour to complete her several trips through the conduits. The military’s cost of labour for this job was one strawberry Pop Tart.
And for anyone who is old enough to remember watching the 1981 royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, you have ferrets to thank. In order for the event to be televised, ferrets were needed to run the cable lines under Buckingham Palace.
With their ability to easily navigate tight areas including conduits, inside walls, and underground, ferrets became a mainstay for use in electrical work. New innovations have rendered the animals mostly obsolete, but one of the most common tools used for threading cables is named the ferret, in homage to our furry electricians.
Seeing Eye Horses
There are few places most people would want to spend extended periods of time than directly behind a horse. But for those afflicted both with both blindness and an allergy to dogs, a guide horse may be the perfect solution.
Horses have been domesticated for 6,000 years, performing all sorts of jobs. Horses are typically calm animals and not easily distracted. They also have a natural ability to guide and can handle daily routines even on busy city streets without becoming distracted or overwhelmed. Just think of police horses. While no longer common, they still exist are able to walk effortlessly through urban areas, even knowing on their own when it is appropriate to cross the street.
Miniature horses, ranging from about 1.5 feet to just under 3 feet tall, have begun being used as service animals for the blind in recent decades. The idea isn’t new, and the first recorded instance of this idea goes back to the 1943 film The Blocked Trail. Though the idea may have existed, it wasn’t put into practice until the late 1990s.
A guide horse works in much the same was that a guide dog does. There are even a number of advantages to using miniature horses rather than dogs. Horses have much better vision than dogs, and in many ways better than humans as well. They may not see the same level of detail as humans, but horses have a 360 degree field of vision and vastly superior night vision to our own, as well as an incredible ability to detect motion. The result was that the horses being trained as guides would often see hazards present before their trainers would.
Another advantage of guide horses is their lifespan. While a guide dog typically lives for 8-12 years, a guide horse lives for 30-40 years. Both animals take the same amount of time to train, and the horses are properly house trained so walking directly behind them will not be the dangerous gamble it may be with other horses.
That all sounds great, but as evidenced by the fact that dogs are still the standard guide animal, there are some disadvantages to horses as well. The main disadvantage is that a horse, even a miniature one, is still a horse. They’re larger and heavier than dogs, which can make attempting to use things like taxis or crowded public transportation very difficult.
The other main problem is that, unlike dogs that can comfortably adapt to most houses, guide horses need to live outdoors. This means that the owner needs to have a barn or other separate shelter with ample room for the horse to move around when not on duty. Fortunately, horses aren’t addicted to human affection the way dogs are so they’ll be perfectly fine outside, but it creates additional expense and logistical issues for any would-be guide horse owners.
As rare and unusual a sight as a guide horse may be, in 2010 the Department of Justice amended the Americans with Disabilities act to include miniature horses as recognized service animals, whereas only dogs had previously been recognized. However, entities covered by the ADA only need to make accommodations for guide horses “where reasonable”, so they are not afforded the same level of protection as service dogs.
Medical Detection Dogs
“Medical detection dogs” may just sound like a fancy way to describe dogs that search for narcotics, but these dogs have a different job entirely. These dogs are trained to aid doctors in identifying early stage cancer patients by sniffing out their cancer.
Dogs are already known for their incredible sense of smell, with the ability to locate a scent with a concentration as low as just a few parts per trillion. Since many diseases leave trace odor signatures in a person’s body or bodily secretions, it was only natural to test if dogs could be trained to identify these smells. Research heavily indicates the answer is yes.
These trained dogs have demonstrated the ability to detect ovarian cancer from blood samples and prostate cancer from urine samples. Even more extraordinarily, they can identify both lung cancer and colorectal cancer just from smelling a person’s breath. The presence of other noncancerous diseases does not seem to affect the dogs’ ability to sniff out cancer, nor create false positives.
Ideally, medical detection dogs will be able to provide major benefits in diagnosing cancer. They are a low risk, low cost, and non-invasive form of diagnosis that can give immediate results. A single dog is also much more mobile than an entire hospital or medical testing facility, allowing for tests to be conducted virtually anywhere. Any samples flagged by a dog as cancerous are still tested by conventional means to double check, but this may not always be necessary.
Currently, the entire field of medical detection dogs is still under research. They have not been implemented as an actual means of testing yet, but the results are extremely promising. As the sample size of results produced by the dogs increases, their efficacy and reliability can be better measured to determine whether or not deploying them into the workforce is the right way to go. It may still be a work in progress, but all signs point to a positive outcome.
This job is hardly unusual, but it’s too adorable not to mention. Going all the way back to King Henry VIII in the 1500s, there has been a cat living at 10 Downing Street in London, the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, and usually the residence of the Prime Minister as well. The cat served not only as a pet, but as a form of pest control, to eradicate mice and other rodents from the premises.
Though members of the British press had affectionately referred to the cats as Chief Mouser, it did not become an official title until 2011 when the newest mouser, Larry, was awarded the title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office.
Larry was a rescued stray, showing that no matter what their background, truly anybody could earn the right to reside at 10 Downing Street. Larry’s job is not limited to simply hunting mice, either. His other official duties are listed as “greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defenses, and testing antique furniture for napping quality”.
In short, Larry’s job is to be a cat. The job itself may not be crazy, but being an official position in the British government certainly is. Chief Mouser is also a position for life. So unlike Boris Johnson, Larry is not subject to a no confidence vote in the event of a scandal.