MSG Jessica D. Lam, US Army
Animals have played a role in warfare for thousands of years. Horses, donkeys, mules, and elephants are just a few that provided transportation and services, carrying men and equipment (Allsopp, 2014). Other animals served as actual weapons of war. Soldiers launched beehives into enemy camps, delivering angry masses of insects to sting and cause chaos (Allsopp, 2014). Dogs and bats served as unknowing suicide bombers, released toward the enemy with bombs strapped to them (Allsopp, 2014). Today the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program (MMP) utilizes marine mammals as an asset to America’s military.
Dolphins and sea lions of the MMP bring valuable skills to the Navy that assist with military operations, security, and search and rescue missions. Many oppose the MMP and continually pursue abolishment of the program. Tactics and the functions of animals in war have changed over the years but the role of animals remains vital. The Department of Defense should maintain the MMP due to its contributions to military superiority, mission success, and the continued advancement of knowledge and understanding of marine mammals; the MMP adds value both to military operations and the scientific community.
History of the Navy Marine Mammal Program
The MMP began in 1959; the Navy was interested in studying dolphins to improve designs on torpedoes (United States Department of the Navy [DN], 2008). While dolphin characteristics did not lend in applicability to the Navy’s initial intent for developing systems, scientists were nonetheless interested in further studying dolphins’ capabilities (DN, 2008). A dolphin research program began in 1963. Specific studies focused on marine mammals’ ability to conduct deep dives and sound navigation and ranging (sonar); the use of sound to detect objects (Evans, 2008).
Scientists at the MMP have worked with a variety of marine mammals ranging from marine birds to seals and sharks (DN, 2008). However, dolphins and sea lions are the two types of marine mammals maintained for primary studies and use within the MMP (DN, 2008). Natural sonar is not replicable with technology, so scientists chose dolphins, who possess natural sonar, for their program (Haun, 1997). Scientists chose sea lions for their “sensitive underwater directional hearing and low light level vision” (DN, 2008, p. A-3). Additionally, both dolphins and sea lions are highly trainable and capable of back-to-back dives at deep depths and for lengths of time that human divers are not (Evans, 2008).
Arguments Against Marine Mammal Captivity
The intelligence and trainability of marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions have contributed to their captivity and display at aquariums and parks like SeaWorld where they often become part of scheduled shows, performing tricks for visitors. Such performances elicit both enjoyment and opposition. Many appreciate the ability to observe marine mammals with ease; unlike requirements to view them in their natural environment. At the same time, many oppose the captivity of, and forced performance by, marine mammals that behavior studies show are sentient and sapient (Whale and Dolphin Conservation [WDC], 2022). Sentience is “the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences” (WDC, 2022). Sentience enables individuals to act based on their experiences. Sapience refers to the ability to use judgment (WDC, 2022). Some animal welfare groups argue that dolphins are both sentient and sapient due to their ability to use tools, cooperate, and communicate (WDC, 2022). While the U.S. has no federal legal recognition of animals as sentient beings, the European Union does (WDC, 2022).
Sentience and sapience aside, studies have proven captivity of marine mammals results in various negative impacts. Removing dolphins from the wild not only affects that individual dolphin, but it also impacts an entire community of dolphins. Within dolphin communities, individual dolphins play key roles that hold the community together; without those individuals that specific community risks falling apart (Rose & Parsons, 2019). Away from their communities, marine mammals captured from the wild begin to gradually lose natural behaviors such as methods for hunting food and specific vocalization patterns (Rose & Parsons, 2019). Other behaviors associated with mating, dominance, and parenting also become altered in captivity (Rose & Parsons, 2019).
Stress-related conditions such as weight loss, ulcers, antisocial behavior, pacing, self-mutilation, and lower rates of successful birth are all results of captivity and forced unnatural groupings at many marine facilities (Scribner, 2012). Other stressors relate directly to the housing and limited facilities for marine mammals. In the wild, marine mammals travel great distances for food, mating, and other natural drivers (Scribner, 2012). Manufactured enclosures are unable to replicate the wild in size or natural stimulation (other plant and animal life). Oceanographer and author Jacques Cousteau once stated, “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate conditions of the sea” (Scribner, 2012, p. 9). Despite the proven negative impacts of marine mammal captivity, there are many benefits that counter these.
Arguments for Marine Mammal Captivity
Arguments for marine mammal captivity always circle around conservation and education, two separate yet highly interconnected aspects of the benefit of marine mammal captivity. The more scientists learn, and the better educated the world becomes about marine mammals, the more we can understand our impact on their environment. This knowledge translates directly into conservation efforts. Marine mammal captivity makes scientific studies more manageable. In the wild variables are hard, if not impossible, to regulate, whereas, in a controlled environment, variables are manageable (Scribner, 2012).
Since its inception scientists at the MMP have contributed more than four hundred scientific papers on subjects not limited to: hydrodynamics, sonar, hearing, echolocation, capabilities of marine mammals, organochlorine contamination, how dolphins produce sound, radio-tagging, marine mammal populations, and satellite telemetry (Evans, 2008). The results of knowledge gained from the research done at the MMP benefit not only the scientists, researchers, and veterinarians, it also benefits marine mammals as a community (Haun, 1997). Two examples of this are MMP projects DeepHear and temporary threshold shift which test the hearing of dolphins, sea lions, and whales at different depths to determine at what levels sound is detrimental to marine mammals (Haun, 1997).
Arguments for the Navy Marine Mammal Program
Along with the research conducted at the MMP, special staff train dolphins and sea lions to conduct missions in support of the U.S. military. Unlike humans who require decompression stops when returning to the surface from dives of greater depths than twenty meters, to avoid decompression sickness, dolphins and sea lions can perform repeated deep-water dives with no negative impacts (Evans, 2008). They can dive deeper than three hundred meters in only minutes and require no decompression stops to resurface (DN, 2008). The MMP utilizes these natural skills of dolphins and sea lions to save the Navy time and money.
In Project Quick Find staff trained sea lions to find an object lost at sea and place a retrieval device on the object for recovery. These objects typically fall into the categories of training aides, aircraft parts, missiles, or oceanographic equipment (Conboy, 1972). Prior to the use of sea lions, approximately 90% of money spent on object recovery went towards finding the object; the remaining 10% went towards retrieving the located object (Conboy, 1972). A portion of the money saved on object recovery goes towards the care of MMP marine mammals.
Marine Mammal Care
The MMP continuously assesses and adjusts the program based on the best and most current available science to ensure the program’s marine mammals receive the highest quality of care (DN, 2008). The MMP is an accredited organization, revalidated every three years; the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International is the accrediting agency (DN, 2008). All MMP dolphin and sea lion housing exceeds the size and depth requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, and all mammals remain in socially compatible groups (DN, 2008). MMP mammals receive restaurant-quality fish and a quality assurance program monitors food quality by testing for pollutants and calorie, fat, and protein content (DN, 2008). Additionally, MMP dolphins and sea lions swim in open water daily to maintain their natural foraging skills and the ability to elude threats (DN, 2008). Possessing these skills is critical when MMP marine mammals are in open waters conducting missions.
Military, Security, and Search and Rescue Operations
Navy personnel used a dolphin to carry equipment sixty-five meters down to an underwater installation in 1965 (Evans, 2008). Then in 1993, an MMP sea lion helped local law enforcement find a car in a river, unlocatable by divers (Haun, 1997). For the Republican National Convention in 1996, MMP dolphins patrolled San Diego Bay (DN, 2008). Also in 1996, an MMP dolphin supported search and rescue efforts following a boating accident in San Diego Bay (Haun, 1997).
Operationally, the U.S. has used marine mammals during war efforts since Vietnam (Morrison, 1988). In 1971 the MMP sent five dolphins to Cam Rahn Bay to protect the U.S. fleet anchored there from enemy swimmers trying to attach explosives to the ships (Evan, 2008; Morrison, 1988). Then in 1986 six dolphins deployed to the Persian Gulf, tasked to find Iranian mines and detect any enemy approaching from the water (Morrison, 1988). Operation Noble Eagle, from 2001 to 2003, used dolphins again for security missions (DN, 2008). And, in the North Arabian Gulf, during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, dolphins and sea lions completed security missions and remained available for taskings for more than two and a half years (DN, 2008). Today, the MMP’s marine mammals conduct continuous security operations at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia.
From ancient warfare to security operations in Kings Bay, Georgia today, animals have played important indirect and direct supporting roles in militaries across the globe. While there are many valid concerns regarding animals in captivity, conscious and continuous efforts to ensure the utmost quality of care nullify many of those concerns. The MMP ensures their marine mammals receive this high-quality care. Dolphins and sea lions in the MMP save the military valuable time and money. They also bring valuable skills to the Navy that benefit both military and American civilians. Additionally, through the MMP scientists have conducted a plethora of research and published hundreds of scientific papers contributing knowledge to military and civilian communities. Because of their contributions to continued military superiority, mission success, and knowledge expansion, the MMP is a program the Department of Defense should maintain.
Allsopp, N. (2014). Animals in combat. New Holland.
Conboy, M. E. (1972). Project quick find: A marine mammal system for object recovery. Department of the Navy. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/12HcSSwmCi2hxTcCW0anvR14Kjy-kbiDH?usp=share_link
Evans, W. E. (2008). A short history of the Navy’s marine mammal program. Aquatic Mammals, 34(3) 367-380. https://doi.org/10.1578/AM.34.3.2008.367
Haun, J. (1997). U.S. Navy marine mammal program [Brochure]. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/12HcSSwmCi2hxTcCW0anvR14Kjy-kbiDH?usp=share_link
Morrison, D. C. (1988). Marine mammals join the Navy. Science, 242(4885), 1503-1504. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.3201237
Rose, N. A., & Parsons, E. C. M. (2019). The case against marine mammals in captivity. The Humane Society of the United States. https://safe.menlosecurity.com/doc/docview/viewer/docN95F58AC284822856b17dcd61de7a5fa20876e4a0b48313fdaaa96cae72a7a3c4ce4f722dbbe9
Scribner, L. C. (2012). The debate on marine mammals in captivity [Honors thesis, Coastal Carolina University]. https://digitalcommons.coastal.edu/honors-theses/62
United States Department of the Navy. (2008). Swimmer interdiction security system (SISS) environmental impact statement. https://books.google.com/books?id=WPY3AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Whale and Dolphin Conservation. (2022, December 10). Sentient and sapient whales and dolphins. https://us.whales.org/whale-culture/sentient-and-sapient-whale-and-dolphins/
MSG Jessica Lam joined the U.S. Army in July 1999 as a Military Police Soldier. She has served across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. in duty positions that range from Army corrections, Drill Sergeant, antiterrorism officer, physical security officer, First Sergeant, and numerous staff positions. MSG Lam holds a Master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management and is currently a student at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.
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