2016-06-02 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Most of us think of horses as the World War I cavalry, and war dogs alongside soldiers, yet cats and several other surprising species performed specific military tasks too. Over 16 million animals served in the First World War. They were used for transport, communication and companionship.

In 1914, both sides had large cavalry forces. Horse and camel-mounted troops were used in the desert campaigns throughout the war, but on the Western Front, new weapons like the machine gun made cavalry charges increasingly difficult.

However, animals remained a crucial part of the war effort. Horses, donkeys, mules and camels carried food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to men at the front, and dogs and pigeons carried messages. Canaries were used to detect poisonous gas; cats and dogs were trained to hunt rats in the trenches.

Animals were not only used for work. Dogs, cats and more unusual animals including monkeys, bears and lions, were kept as pets and mascots to raise morale and provide comfort amidst the hardships of war.


A cat in a French trench in 1918 A cat in a French trench in 1918 WWI cats: An estimated 500,000 cats were dispatched to the trenches, where they killed rats and mice; some were also used as gas detectors. At sea, cats had the run of the ship—a tradition dating back thousands of years. As the U.S. Naval Institute explains:

It is likely that the ancient Egyptians were the first seafarers to realize the true value of having cats as shipmates. In addition to offering sailors much needed companionship on long voyages, cats provided protection by ridding ships of vermin. Without the cats, a crew might find their ship overrun with rats and mice that would eat into the provisions, chew through ropes and spread disease. The more superstitious sailors believed that cats protected them by bringing good luck. It was also common for crews to adopt cats from the foreign lands they visited to serve as souvenirs as well as reminders of their pets at home.


“Stubby,” the most-decorated war dog ever “Stubby,” the most-decorated war dog ever WWI slugs: Less well known was the amazing role played by ordinary garden slugs. Garden slugs became extremely useful for detecting poison gas. The chemical warfare unit of the U.S. Army searched for the best creature to detect the presence of oncoming gas in time for the soldiers to don their masks. Cows, rats, mice, guinea pigs, cats—all proved flawed. Flies and fleas were tried to no avail. The Army turned to the Smithsonian for help. Dr. Paul Bartsch had been studying ordinary garden slugs for eight years, and discovered slugs have extraordinary olfactory capabilities.

Every creature that had been tested by the Army for gas-detection purposes had developed pneumonia—ex- cept for the slug. When exposed to mustard gas, the garden slug closed its breathing aperture, thus protecting its lung membrane. Mustard gas in contact with moisture produces hydrochloric acid, which attacks the delicate lung membrane. The remarkable slug could endure many successive gassings and not be injured or have its ability to detect the presence of gas compromised. The slug became available to the U.S. Army for duty in the trenches starting in June 1918. Slugs served with Army forces for five months and saved countless American lives. By the way, lightning bugs were also used by World War I soldiers to read maps without being detected by the enemy.

WWI pigeons: Thousands of carrier pigeons were used by the U.S. Army to send messages. Though landline phones were available during the Great War, they were unreliable as the enemy often cut the wires.

“Cher Ami” (“Dear Friend” in French), flew for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France. This pigeon delivered 12 important messages before being struck by enemy fire. Despite being shot in the breast and leg, he managed to carry the message, found dangling from his shattered leg. His brave dedication to the mission led to the rescue of 194 soldiers in Major Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion.” Cher Ami, who died in 1919, likely as a result of his battle wounds, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre award for his heroic service and was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame. His one-legged body is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Most famous WWI dog: According to the US War Dogs Association, America with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska was the only country to take part in World War I with no service dogs within its military. The French, British and Belgians by 1918 had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans 30,000. But America’s war department felt that now that they were ‘over there,’ the war would be quickly over and there’d be no need for any dogs. The American forces depended on the French and British for the dogs they needed.

Of course, there were exceptions. “Stubby,” a Pit mix, became probably the most famous war dog ever. Stubby was found as a stray on the Yale campus in 1917, and smuggled to France during World War I by his adoptive owner, Cpl. John Robert Conroy. The dog’s heroic acts include participating in 17 battles, four offenses, and improving troop morale. He also used his keen senses to warn his unit of poison-gas attacks, incoming artillery fire, and to locate downed soldiers on the battlefield. His skills were also put to good use when he sniffed out and apprehended a German spy lurking in the trenches.

Later Stubby became a lifetime member of the American Legion, Red Cross and YMCA. He met three US presidents— Wilson, Harding and Coolidge. General Pershing gave him a gold medal. He died in his owner’s arms in 1926.

For Adoption: “Dash,” a silly, 12-week-old tabby, was hand raised as an “only child” kitten by a Babylon Shelter staff member. He’s lived with adult cats but would love a home with a young feline. Call 631-643-9270. Meanwhile, “Buck” and “Jessie,” both wonderful family dogs, found themselves homeless at Brookhaven Shelter because their loving owner is facing eviction. Both are now at Last Hope in Wantagh. Each is six years old and about 70 lbs. “Buck,” a Retriever mix, and “Jessie,” a smooth Collie mix, are well socialized with kids, other dogs and cats. They need a home together or separately. Call 631-671-2588.

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