Marine Corps working dog Lucca injured in Afghanistan by an IED. Photo By: Lance Cpl. Caitlin Bevel

The Taliban captured a British military dog named Colonel, who had been separated from his handler on the battlefield in Afghanistan, holding the animal as a prisoner of war in 2014. When University of Waikato’s Dr Anna Marie Brennan heard about the case it was a light bulb moment, inspiring her latest research.

Among other items, Colonel had a rifle, a pistol and a GPS device strapped to him - he was armed for the frontline. The Taliban issued a statement, saying they would treat the dog as a prisoner of war within the meaning of the Geneva Conventions, and that he could potentially be used in an exchange of prisoners. He was eventually returned to the British army, under circumstances that remain unclear to this day.

Dr Brennan was intrigued the Taliban was naming the dog was a combatant, a soldier. “It opened up this larger project looking at how we should see animals in the military and what regulations there are for them on the battlefield.”

Dogs have been used in wars since the Roman ages, and are considered more effective at detecting IEDs and enemy soldiers than any technology developed so far. But Dr Brennan says a whole host of animals have been used: donkeys, horses and even bears were put into play during wars last century, rats are clearing landmines in Angola today, and there are experiments on bees to see if they can deliver chemical weapons. Both United States and Russian armies have used military dolphins to clear mines, locate lost divers, and raise the alarm to intruders in the water.

Dr Anna Marie Brennan.

The simple answer to what laws govern animals on the battlefield is this: none. Dr Brennan says the Geneva Conventions are completely human-centric. “It would seem at the moment a dog like Colonel is classified as a weapon, and as a result he can be the legitimate target of an attack.” And it raises other issues. “If the dog was shot in conflict, is there a vet on the sideline who is able to administer aid to this dog? What legal obligations does the army unit he is in have to ensure the wellbeing of the animal. My argument is that there should be more protection.”

Once the dog is off the battlefield and finished his service, what becomes of him? “Of course many of these dogs are trained to kill, so it is not like they can be adopted into an ordinary family. Many of them are euthanized because they are so dangerous.” Dr Brennan says Barack Obama brought in legislation to ensure medical care for military dogs when they come back from service. “Many of these dogs have the animal equivalent of PTSD. It remains to be seen how success that legislation will be in the longer term.”

Dr Brennan’s recently been in touch with the New Zealand Defence Force. “It is my understanding they have utilized dogs in operations in the past. They classify their animals as equipment. But many armed forces give their dogs ranks, generally higher than the rank of their human handler. They decorate them with medals, and treat them as war heros.”

Some people would say they are only animals, after all. “But of course many countries recognize animals as being sentient beings, New Zealand recognizes them as being sentient beings. My argument would be that the dog hasn’t consented to join up to the army. My argument is if a dog is on the battlefield in a live conflict situation, every attempt should be made to avoid injuring or killing that dog. That throws up the possibility that a similar status should be attached to the human handler. That would be akin to protections for religious or medical personnel on the frontline.”

Should military animals be seen as weapons or soldiers? Dr Brennan says they should be classified as somewhere in between. “But if you try to cover animals within the Geneva Conventions you would have to overhaul them, or at least add an additional protocol.”

Dr Anna Marie Brennan has just published Transnational Terrorist Groups and International Criminal Law. Before coming to the University of Waikato earlier this year she was with the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. This summer she will be teaching Critical Issues in Space Law, covering issues including legal developments in military uses in outer space, public manned spaceflight and space station operations, and space tourism. It is understood to be the first time space has been explored in this way at a University in New Zealand.

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