The Military Commoditization Of Marine Mammals

“WTF am I doing here?”

It’s seriously annoying when sea lions and dolphins in the US Navy’s benighted marine mammal program are referred to as “friends,” “capabilities,” or “systems.” They are autonomous (though not free) and sentient creatures, drafted into captive service for military purposes that have nothing to do with their lives or needs:

“Actually, there is a long history of using our friends at sea for these kind of roles, so I’m not dubious,” said P.W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America. “Dolphins have been used in mine hunting in the Iraq war and even anti-enemy swimmer roles in Vietnam. And the reality is that for the time being, animals have superior agility and even sensors than most robotic systems.”

The trend over the past century has been to swap military animals with machines, which is why the horse gave way to the tank and homing pigeons gave way to radios. But engineers see animals and machines as “systems.”

The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on these programs is money wasted in service of dubious aims.

The Exploitation Of Navy Dolphins

“Dude, I know you don’t have much for me to do, but spinning me in circles to research dizziness is ridiculous.”

I have long heard terrible tales of invasive and cruel research done by the US Navy’s marine mammal program. So it doesn’t really surprise me to know that the dolphins the US Navy is currently keeping in San Diego are also subject to invasive research that has little benefit to dolphins (as usual, Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute is on the case). From a CBS News 8 report:

Kept in pens on San Diego Bay for decades, the Navy dolphins have developed a number of chronic diseases similar to those in humans; diseases like kidney stones, liver disease, iron overload and prediabetes symptoms.

“The prevalence of these conditions in the Navy dolphin program is much higher than in the wild,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC.

Dr. Rose believes Navy dolphin research should be more about conservation than curing human diseases.

“If you’re going to keep them in captivity then the research you do with them has to have a direct, positive input into their conservation in the wild.  It has to be of value to (the dolphins),” Dr. Rose said.

Some of the research the NMMF conducts does, in fact, focus on conservation.  It can also be invasive to varying degrees.

In a 2016 study, dolphins were given cortisone – a hormonal steroid – to determine what levels can be measured in the animal’s blubber.  The study required up to nine blubber biopsies, obtained from the dolphins’ backs over five days.

“A cold pack was placed on the skin of the biopsy site for several minutes just prior to the biopsy procedure in order the numb the site,” the study’s researchers wrote.

“Two to three needle punches were required per sample to obtain sufficient blubber,” the study revealed.

Scientists also obtained daily fecal samples using a 15-inch catheter tube inserted into the animal’s anus.

In a 2008 study and another study in 2011, the Navy dolphins were subjected to near freezing water, in part, to find out if the animals could live in the frigid ocean waters of a Navy sub base in Washington State.

Over the course of ten days, the dolphins were monitored for indications of cold stress, such as increased respiration rate and shivering.

“They basically forced these animals into temperature conditions that were completely outside their physiological norm. All to justify moving them to this submarine base,” said Dr. Rose, referring to the 2008 study.

In a 2010 study, NMMF scientists used a feeding tube it force a gallon of seawater into the stomachs of Navy dolphins.  The purpose was to monitor osmoregulation – water and salt levels – in the dolphin’s body.

A catheter was placed into the dolphin’s bladder to obtain urine samples over a period of 25 hours.

Some of the dolphins objected to the procedure and the study on those animals was halted, according to the published paper.

“Objected.” That is a nice euphemism.

This is just one more example of the way in which animals, especially dolphins, are commoditized for human purposes. Animal welfare counts for little; human welfare counts for everything (though in this case the benefits aren’t even very clear).

The Navy dolphins are in some ways surplus, as their mine-hunting and other missions are increasingly supplanted by underwater drones and robots. But the Navy really doesn’t know what to do with them. That makes them a fat target for self-interested researchers who want to keep grant money rolling in regardless of whether the research is particularly useful or damaging to the dolphins. That’s messed up.

Video report here. And more from Naomi Rose here.