Historical essay
For the Sake of Humans: Animal Casualties and Medical Testing in Modern War

For the Sake of Humans: Animal Casualties and Medical Testing in Modern War

Evan P. Sullivan

During the First World War, a group of British and American military engineers conducted a series of experiments to determine what kinds of dugouts would give soldiers the most protection from high explosive artillery shells. They did so in response to battlefield evidence that dead soldiers had been found with their bodies whole, with only blood stained mouths and noses as evidence of their cause of death. The soldiers’ lungs had hemorrhaged from the artillery air concussions – in other words, they had drowned in their own blood. The engineers, unable to test on human subjects, used dogs in their experiments. The Army engineers placed the K9s in open fields, shell holes, trenches, and deep dugouts, and exploded 10-, 20-, and 30-pound explosives within close enough range to kill them. The 10-pound explosives, for example, “seriously injured” the dogs. And the 30-pound charge caused the buckling of the floor of the dugout, and “the animal was thrown by the vibration violently against the wall of the ceiling and fractured its skull.”1

This gruesome story does not fit comfortably alongside the far more common narrative, both during World War I and today, about the valor of war dogs. For example, the American Legion Weekly published an article in August 1919, not long after the experiment, called “Here Are the Dogs of War,” in which the author highlighted the myriad roles that dogs played in the First World War, including having served in sentry duty and lead stretcher-bearers to wounded men on the battlefield.2 Numerous other accounts of dogs in the First World War replicated such courageous stories, including one book about Red Cross and Army dogs that began with, “In war-time, if perils must be faced and desperate deeds done, the dog is ready to face the worst at our sides.” Stories of heroism and the dogs’ good deeds served a particular purpose of proving that everyone, even dogs, did their part in war, while they simultaneously overshadowed, or did not acknowledge, the violence that humans often inflicted on animals more broadly.

The Red Cross used dogs to search for wounded soldiers on World War I battlefields. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Yet, these are merely small stories within a much larger history of wartime violence toward animals that includes gruesome testing such as the engineer experiment on dogs and dugouts, which was violence in the name of keeping war as safe as possible for humans.3 Scholars have recently examined that animals played central roles in transportation and support in modern, technologically advanced, mechanized wars.4 Colin Salter uses the term Military-Animal Industrial Complex to describe the animals’ existence and vital role within the military industrial complex. Salter argues that, while most people remain ignorant of experiments on animals, exploiting animals is a “key feature of war” and that this exploitation fuels the corporate-capitalist system of profiting from war globally.5 In a modern sense, animal testing is usually described in sacrificial terms “for the sake of humans as if it were a consciously made decision” on the part of animals.6 Historically speaking, the modern overshadowing of horrific stories about medical experiments on animals, usually in favor of heroic anecdotes, has roots in the First World War.

The British and American military experiments exploding shells in the vicinity of dogs was just one of many examples of animal testing in the Great War. In 1917, for example, the US Army tested a dysentery remedy, which included injecting rabbits with massive doses of emetine hydrochloride that, upon injection, caused rapid heartbeat, muscle twitching, and intestinal inflammation. Death usually resulted within two minutes.7 In another experiment, researchers used dogs to test the after-effects of gas. Between 1921 and 1925, researchers at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland gassed a total of 313 dogs. The majority of the dogs tested were subjected to phosgene or mustard gas. Researchers took imaging of the lungs throughout the process. It was clear that the dogs were not meant to live, but “were killed at varying intervals of time after recovery and carefully studied” to see if damage remained after gassing. Among the 95 dogs gassed with phosgene, 61 were killed by lethal injection, 34 died after a week of “recovery,” 21 had normal lungs, and 24 had “minimal lesions.” But even the dogs that recovered, for the most part, were killed.8 The reason for these experiments: to provide justification for the prevailing argument that many American veterans with gas wounds did not actually require the level of disability compensation they had been getting from the state.9

U.S. military personnel photographed this dog’s lungs after the animal was subjected to a “shell shock experiment” in August 1917. (“Dug-Out and Shell Shock Experiments,” RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 395, National Archives.)

These experiments occurred at a time of increasing public unease toward vivisection, or the experimental dissection of live animals. Even by the late 1800s, anti-vivisection organizations began to appear in places such as England and the United States.10 Yet, while both countries had numerous organizations dedicated to preventing animal testing and cruelty, there were no successful laws in part because the medical establishment held more power and influence.11 Similar to the previous century, there have been plenty of debates about how states in the twenty-first century use animals in order to make war safer for humans. For example, PETA targeted the US military in 2012 for its use of animals for Live Tissue Trauma Training (LTTT), using goats, pigs, and monkeys to train combat medics, rather than relying on realistic computer-generated simulation. According to the training, the animals were anaesthetized, wounded in ways similar to what one might see in war, and medics were expected to react accordingly. Once the training was over, the animals were euthanized. According to one 2012 report, the Department of Defense uses roughly 9,000 pigs and goats per year.12 One medic explained his training in 2006:

[gblockquote]Each person was given an anesthetized pig. “And every time I did something to help him, they would wound him again … My pig? They shot him twice in the face with a 9-millimeter pistol, and then six times with an AK-47 and then twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. And then he was set on fire … I kept him alive for 15 hours … That was my pig.[/gblockquote]

The kinds of military experiments used in the First World War are not so dissimilar from our own time.

But animal testing in the modern military context at least has generated some public pushback. PETA has not been the only one to argue against the military’s use of animals in LTTT. In 2016, the New York Times Editorial Board issued a call to ban animal use in medical training, which coincided with Congressional bills aimed at banning this practice. And animal rights groups have also pushed for the Veterans’ Administration to eliminate medical testing on dogs that might help veterans with spinal chord wounds. These debates have often pitted animal rights’ groups against veterans’ groups.13 The mismanaged Trump administration has also generated highly unstable policies. While the former VA Secretary David Shulkin committed to reviewing existing procedures for medical experiments on dogs, by 2018, the new Secretary of the VA Robert Wilkie has openly supported canine medical testing, reflecting others who argue that doing away with animal testing would mean not serving American soldiers to the best of our abililty because medics would be less prepared for battlefield casualties.

Dogs continue to be both the object of military medical curiosity and the subject of continued valorization of modern war in ways that replicate experiences in the Great War.  At the White House in November 2019, President Donald Trump greeted and awarded a medal to Conan, the dog that was injured in the raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Conan is a tough cookie,” Mr. Trump said. “Nobody is going to mess with Conan.” Vice President Mike Pence added, “We were able to complete the raid without any American casualties, so I think having the Special Forces here … and also having this dog here today is all a reflection of our Armed Forces and the great job that they do.” The American public did well to lend its support to valorous war dogs, with little knowledge of the wider context of modern military violence toward animals.14

It is doubtless that if canines are to be in war zones they should be recognized for their work. However, to glorify their exploits in a way that also glorifies state-sponsored violence helps no one, and ignores the long and complex histories of global conflicts’ adverse effects on the natural world, including animals. After all, dogs and other animals do not ask for war, nor do they ask to be experimented on. One ray of hope in centering violence in the canine war story comes from an exhibit at the National Museum of the US Air Force in November 2019 for wounded war dogs, that features stories of dogs wounded or killed in war. One story highlights Cooper, who, on July 6, 2007, was killed in an IED explosion. The sculpture of Cooper depicts a yellow lab with angel wings and a dove on his back. Perhaps we should also memorialize the victims of medical inquiry as well.


  1. Major G. W. Crile, “A Biological Test of Protective Value of Dugouts, ‘Pill Boxes,’ Shelters and Saps Against High Explosives,” RG 112, Series NM 29, Box 295, Folder 710: Shell Shock, US National Archives. Return to text.
  2. George S. Wheat, “Here Are the Dogs of War: They Fought as Bravely as Their Soldier Comrades,” American Legion Weekly 1, No. 8, August 22, 1919, 18. Return to text.
  3. See Colin Salter, Anthony J. Nocella II, and Judy K.C. Bentley, eds., Animals and War: Confronting the Military-Animal Industrial Complex (New York: Lexington Books, 2014). Return to text.
  4. Gervase Phillips, “Technology, ‘Machine Age’ Warfare, and the Military Use of Dogs, 1880-1918,” Journal of Military History 82, no. 1 (January 2018), 67-94. Return to text.
  5. Salter, “Introduction,” Animals and War, 6. Return to text.
  6. Justin R. Goodman, Shalin G. Gala, and Ian E. Smith, “Front Toward Animals: Animal Exploitation in U.S. Military Medical Training Exercises,” in Animals and War, 52. Return to text.
  7. Howard H. Johnson and John A. Murphy, “The Toxic Effect of Emetine Hydrochloride,” The Military Surgeon: Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States 1 (January 1917): 70. Return to text.
  8. A.R. Koontz, “When Do Lungs Return to Normal Following Exposure to War Gases?” Archives of Internal Medicine 36, No. 2 (August 1925): 204–218; and “The After Effects of Warfare Gases,” The Army Medical Bulletin 16 (1925): 106–109. Return to text.
  9. “The After Effects of Warfare Gases,” 109. Return to text.
  10. Margo DeMello, Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 403. Return to text.
  11. DeMello, Animals and Society, 405. Return to text.
  12. Gary Martinic, “Military ‘Live Tissue Trauma Training’ Using Animals in the US – Its Purpose, Importance and Commentary on Military Medical Research and the Debate on Use of Animals in Military Training,” Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health 20 (2012): 4–14. Return to text.
  13. Leo Shane III, “Animal Testing Debate Pits Injured Veterans Against Dogs,” Military Times, August 27, 2017. Return to text.
  14. Coleman McCarthy and the scholars in Animals and War seek to remedy the disparity of available and disseminated information about animals as victims of war; Coleman McCarthy, “Foreword,” in Animals and War, xv. Return to text.

Featured image caption: British messenger dogs with their handler, France, during World War I. The story of animal experimentation during WWI is a more gruesome aspect of the use of animals during wartime. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Evan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from University at Albany, and specializes in gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.