How many times have you spotted a cat sashaying down the street, the epitomeof runway elegance, and caught yourself cheering: “Work it, girl!” No? Justme? Fine, but there really are animals that “work it.” You’ve probably heardof therapy and emotional support animals that provide physical assistanceand emotional comfort to humans in need — a role aced by golden-hearteddoggos and a plethora of other animals.
Then there are the craftier gigs reserved for spy birds on top-secretmissions and heroic rodents that have been trained to sniff out dangerousexplosives. In today’s Sunday Magazine, we take you into the weird, wonderfuland sometimes controversial world of animals that work. At a time when four-legged social media stars are on the rise, “working like a dog” may not meanwhat you think at all.
Sohini Das Gupta
1 – Rats Sniffing for Safety
If you must rat something out, let it be the location of land mines. That’sexactly what some XL-sized African giant pouched rats do for a living. Weare indebted to a group of Gambian rodents, trained by nonprofit APOPO todetect land mines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. With over 5 millionland mines planted there between 1975 and 1998, the country relies on thesenear-blind rats with a keen sense of smell. Why? Because they are too light toset off the mines and move faster than people. An area that would take a humanwith a metal detector three to four days to cover can be swept by these 2-footcritters in less than half an hour.
2 – Dolphins With Military Precision
Dolphins and sailors share a long, inspiring history. Today, a select group ofdolphins has become the sea equivalent of bomb-sniffing service dogs. The U.S.Navy Marine Mammal Program uses the sophisticated sonar of bottlenose dolphinsto locate undersea mines, especially in murky waters or congested harbors. Theprogram also uses California sea lions. Unlike their human colleagues, theseanimals with superior underwater directional hearing and low-light vision candive to great depths. Reports that dolphins may have been trained foroffensive operations have been rebutted since the declassification of theprogram in the 1990s. Check out this happy guy squealing with delight overtreats earned after a successful mine mission.
3 – No Monkey Business
Service monkeys know better than to monkey around at work. And their jobis a heartwarming one. Raised and trained by Boston-based nonprofit HelpingHands, the intelligent and dexterous capuchin monkeys have assisted peoplewith spinal cord injuries and other mobility impairments since 1979. Althoughthe training program closed in 2021, the organization continues to providesupport for the monkeys and their human partners. Graduates of what was dubbed“ The Monkey College” continue to help people with quadriplegia performtasks like opening bottles, retrieving objects, turning pages, scratchingitches and adjusting limbs in a wheelchair. A good cause, but at what cost?Debates have raged over the ethical implications of removing primates fromtheir families and natural environment.
4 – I Spy a Pigeon in the Sky
It’s a bird . . . it’s a spy . . . it’s paranoia! Let’s backtrack. As anIndian kid, I grew up listening to the whiney hit “ Kabootar Ja Ja”(kabootar = pigeon in Hindi) and, later, the more hummable “Masakali” (anotherword for pigeon). In both music videos, fluttering white pigeons signal freshromance. But over the years, some governments have come to associate pigeonswith a more nefarious activity: espionage. Since 2015, India has detainedpigeons suspected of being “sky spies” dispatched by Pakistan. In 2008,Iran “arrested” pigeons for spying on a nuclear facility. One featheredfelon was caught ferrying ketamine-like drugs in 2017 by Kuwaitiofficials.
5 – COVID-Sniffing Dogs?
Cut to the present. As the coronavirus continues to mutate, mankind’s hopesfor faster, cheaper detection may lie with none other than man’s best friend.As part of an ongoing screening trial, sniffer dogs in England weretrained to recognize a scent produced by infected patients that is notdetectable by the human nose. While the dogs correctly flagged 88% ofcoronavirus cases, experts insist this method is intended to complement ratherthan replace lab testing. Should the trial be broadly implemented, the dogscould help speed up screening at airports and other public spaces.
6 – Free. And Industrious
“Liberated forever, domesticated never!” Such was the rallying cry of Snowballthe rabbit in the 2016 movie The Secret Life of Pets. In the real world,wild animals are extra industrious — and not because of human prodding. Itis, in fact, a quality that’s essential to surviving in the great outdoors.Think of the phrases “busy bee” or “busy as a beaver.” Bees are known to livea regimented life, their social roles clearly defined according to thehierarchical order of worker, drone and queen. An individual bee foragingfor nectar might work 10 hours a day to get the job done. Beavers areconsidered nature’s engineers, a dam-building, furrier version of yourworkaholic cousin who shows up to family gatherings clutching a MacBook.
Source: OZY Sunday Magazine
Image: Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY
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