In 1971, scientists at the National Accelerator Laboratory (NAL) had a problem. The NAL’s new Meson Laboratory was nearing completion, but the pipe work, through which subatomic particles would fly, was dirty. It needed to be spotless to work properly. Someone had to figure out how to remove the innumerable tiny steel particles, dust and other debris from the pipes’ interior before they could be used. The first idea: Create a mechanical cleaner to wipe out the 12-inch (30-centimeter)-wide, 300-foot (91-meter)-long tubes. A good idea, but an expensive and fiddly one. Idea number two: hire someone uniquely suited to the job, a ferret. My name…
Animals have been our companions for tens of thousands of years and have been doing jobs for us the whole time. Some jobs are obvious, like sniffer dogs and mousing cats, so they won’t be on today’s list. Instead we’ll focus on surprising jobs that animals do. For those who don’t already know and love these caffeinated meat slinkies, ferrets love to duck into holes and burrows, which they’ll zip along until they reach the end, just to see what’s there. British physicist Robert Sheldon recalled how, back home, ferrets were sent down rabbit holes to, um, ferret out bunnies. The team agreed to give the less expensive, more cuddly option a try, and so the NAL purchased Felicia, a petite 15-inch (38-centimeter) ferret, for $35. Employees taught Felicia to scurry down the piping while fitted with a special collar and string; as Felicia ran through the pipe, she pulled the string with her. When she emerged at the other end, workers fastened a tight-fitting swab soaked in cleaning fluid to the end of the string, then pulled it back through the pipe to clean it. Sadly, she was made redundant by a mechanical ferret.
When James “Jumper” Wide worked for the Cape Town-Port Authority Railway service, he developed a habit of leaping from one railway car to the other, even when the trains were moving, as you do. One day in 1877, he misjudged his jump by a little too much and fell under the moving train. Jumper survived, though the train had severed both of his legs at the knee. Devastated but not defeated, Jumper made himself two new legs out of wooden pegs and took a job at the Uitenhage station. He even constructed a wooden trolley to help him get around, but despite the additions, he was still having trouble.
That’s when Jack appeared. Jumper met Jack at the local market, leading an ox wagon. He was impressed with his intelligence and decided he would hire him to be his new work assistant. Eventually, Jack learned how to push Jumper to work in his wagon, switch the train signals, and even hand the conductors their keys. He quickly became an invaluable asset to Jumper’s work. Jack’s great claim to fame? He was a baboon.
Jumper taught Jack how to use the train signals by holding up one or two fingers, and pulling the corresponding levers. Jack also picked up things through watching Jumper, such as delivering conductor keys. As a train pulled into the station, it would set off four blasts from its whistle, signaling the conductor’s need for a key. As soon as he heard the whistles Jumper would then grab keys and slowly hobble over to the conductor. Jack picked up on this, and after just a few days, would complete the task on his own.
Eventually, he could operate the railway signals on his own while under supervision from Jumper. He even became something of a local celebrity and people would come from around Cape Town to watch the baboon operate the tracks. However, the idea of a baboon running the trains was worrisome to a few people and one concerned citizen alerted the train authorities. Apparently, while many people at the management office knew Jumper had hired an assistant, the fact that it was a monkey had somehow slipped through the cracks.
A railroad manager was immediately dispatched to the station to fire the duo, but when he arrived, Jumper pleaded for their jobs, offering for the manager to test Jack’s skills. Thinking there was no way the baboon was as competent as a human, the manager acquiesced. He instructed an engineer to sound a train’s whistle, and watched, shocked, as Jack made the correct signal changes. Apparently, Jack never looked away from the train, ensuring his work was correct. The railroad manager was suitably impressed. He let Jumper keep his job and even made Jack the baboon an official employee, paying him 20 cents a day and half of a bottle of beer each week for his work for the next nine years. In those nine years, Jack made exactly zero mistakes on the job. In the end, Jack contracted tuberculosis and passed away. His skull, however, remains at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa.
Of all the dogs earning their own living, Bodhi the Shiba Inu rakes in $15,000 per month with a very non-canine job. This Japanese hunting dog is a model that goes by the moniker Menswear Dog. Owners and fashion designers Yena Kim and David Fung first clad Bodhi in a stylin’ outfit in 2013 on a whim. Unlike most canines, who would scratch or shake off any such adornments, Bodhi seemed to enjoy his new duds, and began posing for Kim and Fung. The couple posted a photo of the engaging pooch on Facebook, instantly launching Bodhi’s career. Menswear Dog has a Facebook page with more than 200,000 “likes,” 254,000+ Instagram followers, and nearly 10,000 Twitter followers — and a very busy schedule. He’s often out doing campaign shoots for brands such as Coach, Victorinox Swiss Army, American Apparel, Hudson Shoes and Purina. Then there are his individual photo shoots for publications such as GQ, Time, Esquire and Fast Company, as well as personal appearances at events like New York Fashion Week. He even has a book, titled “Menswear Dog Presents the New Classics: Fresh Looks for the Modern Man.”
A lot of people dream of being a NASCAR driver. Jocko Flocko, a Rhesus monkey, got to be the next best thing, a NASCAR co-driver. In 1953, stock car racer Tim Flock decided to race with a monkey as a gimmick. Flock nicknamed his pint-sized co-driver “Jocko Flocko” and outfitted him with his own uniform (No. 91) and a custom-designed seat. Jocko sped around the track with Flock during eight exciting races. Unfortunately, Jocko wasn’t destined to make this new job a permanent career. Flock explains on his website what happened: “Back then the cars had a trap door that we could pull open with a chain to check our tire wear. Well, during the Raleigh 300, Jocko got loose from his seat and stuck his head through the trap door, and he went berserk! Listen, it was hard enough to drive those heavy old cars back then under normal circumstances, but with a crazed monkey clawing you at the same time, it becomes nearly impossible! I had to come into the pits to put him out and ended up third. The pit stop cost me second place and a $600.00 difference in my paycheck. Jocko was retired immediately. I had to get that monkey off my back!” Important unwritten rule of giving an animal a job – check and make sure they want the job.
While most of our dogs do no work to speak of, most of them were bred for one specific purpose, be it protecting livestock, controlling vermin, herding, hunting, protecting, even guarding old-timey fire engines so no one stole them, which is why we have dalmations. But as many jobs, like rag-and-bone men and knocker-ups, have become obsolete, some dog breeds have followed their original tasks into the annals of history. Such was the fate of the turnspit dog. The Canis vertigus, or turnspit, was an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century. The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces. “They were referred to as the kitchen dog, the cooking dog or the vernepator cur,” says Caira Farrell, library and collections manager at the Kennel Club in London. “The very first mention of them is in 1576 in the first book on dogs ever written.” Household ovens are a comparatively recent appliance. Everything was cooked on the hearth or over the fire, so meat on a spit was de reiguer. If you want your meat to cook evenly, your rotisserie needs to keep moving constantly. The turnspit was bred especially to run on a wheel attached to the spit, which is that turned meat so it would cook evenly. And that’s how the turnspit got its other name: vernepator cur, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.” The wheels were far enough from the fire itself that the dogs didn’t overheat, though it was not unheard of for people to flick a hot coal at the dog’s feet to keep it going. Before the dogs, the fireplace spit was turned by the lowliest person in the kitchen staff, usually a small boy who stood behind a bale of wet hay for protection from the heat, turning the iron spit for hours and hours. The boys’ hands used to blister. But in the 16th century, the boys gave way to dogs. Descriptions of the dogs paint a rather mutty picture: small, low-bodied, short front legs, a docked tail, heavy head and drooping ears. Some had gray and white fur; others were black or reddish brown. The dogs were strong and sturdy, capable of working for hours, and over time they evolved into a distinct breed. It was the zoologist Carl Linnaeus who named them Canis vertigus, Latin for “dizzy dog,” because the dogs were turning all the time. Life wasn’t all work for tunspits; they were often given Sundays off and allowed to go to church with the family.
If, like me, you’re tired and depressed by the news cycle these days, and you’re in the market for a new kind of candidate, why not look outside your political party and outside your species while you’re at it. Humans aren’t the only ones who can become elected officials, at least in Sunol, California, a town of 828 residents, located just a little north of San Jose. In 1981, two residents signed up to run for the position of honorary mayor, which would allow them to represent Sunol’s interests at Alameda County meetings. As the election drew near, the race grew increasingly bitter. Partly in jest, resident Brad Leber said his black Labrador retriever mix, Boss “Bosco” Ramos, would win the election if his (Bosco’s) name appeared on the ballot. People took Leber’s words to heart and, since most of them knew and liked Bosco, wrote in Bosco’s name on the ballot. Running as a “Re-pup-lican,” Bosco won the election in a landslide, resulting in international news coverage; the China People’s Daily cited the election as proof of the failure of American democracy. They clearly hadn’t met Bosco. For the next 13 years, Mayor Bosco wandered the town during the day, often stopping in at the taverns for some food. When ill health caused him to be put down in 1994, the locals did not forget their unique elected official. They erected a bronze statue of the former mayor in front of the post office in 2008, where it still stands today and a pub named in his honor opened the following year.
Bosco has lots of company. Boston Curtis, a brown mule, was offered as a candidate for a Republican precinct seat in Milton, Washington in 1938, winning 51 to zero. In 1997, a cat named Stubbs was elected mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska. Although his title as mayor was honorary, he was featured as a write-in candidate for the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Alaska. Sadly, he did not win. In August 2014, seven-year-old Duke The Dog, not the one from the baked beans commercials, won an election and became the new mayor of Cormorant, Minnesota for five years. A cat named Sweet Tart is presently serving her first term as mayor of Omena, Michigan.
Cacareco, a rhinoceros at the São Paulo zoo, was a candidate for the 1958 city council elections with the intention of protesting against political corruption. Electoral officials did not accept Cacareco’s candidacy, but she eventually won 100,000 votes, more than any other party in that same election. Today, the term “Voto Cacareco” (Cacareco vote) is commonly used to describe protest votes in Brazil. Cacareco’s candidacy inspired the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, nominally led by the rhinoceros Cornelius the First. Tião, a bad-tempered chimpanzee, was put forward by the fictional Brazilian Banana Party (Partido Bananista Brasileiro, actually the satirical group Casseta & Planeta) as a candidate for the Rio de Janeiro mayoralty in 1988. The campaign’s slogan was “Vote monkey – get monkey” (because people were tired of voting for one platform and then seeing the elected officials implementing another one). There is no official counting (because all votes were voided), but it’s estimated that Tião received over 400,000 votes, coming third.
New Zealand’s McGillicuddy Serious Party entered a goat in a local Waiheke Island election, but their attempt to have a hedgehog stand for Parliament was unsuccessful. Catmando, a political cat, served as joint leader of Britain’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party (OMRLP) from 1999 to 2002, along with his owner, Howling Laud Hope. Hank the Cat, a Maine Coon from Northern Virginia, ran against Tim Kaine and George Allen for Virginia’s Senate seat in 2012. He earned third place in the state, with nearly 7,000 votes. Honestly, this is far from the worst news story to come out of my home state.
Dogs have been a part of warfare for, presumably, as long as we’ve had both dogs and warfare. That’s why we have the expression, the dogs of war. They carry supplies, locate mines, rescue people, are patrol guards, the usual. In the early 1930s, the Soviet Union decided it would be a good idea to turn man’s best friend into an anti-tank weapon. First, they were trained to carry a bomb to a tank and run off; afterwards, their handler could detonate the bomb with a remote or the bomb may have simply been set with a timer. There were several reasons that these methods didn’t work. To drop the bomb, the dogs had to pull on a belt with his teeth to release it, which proved to be too complicated, and often the dog would simply return to its handler without releasing the bomb. Secondly, remotes were too expensive at the time to be used practically, so timers would be used more often instead and if the dog returned to his handler with the bomb still attached, it wouldn’t end well. Even if the bomb was released under the tank, if the tank was in motion and the timing wasn’t set just so, the bomb would explode without doing any damage to the enemy tank. The Soviets scrapped their initial plan, but unfortunately for Fido, they came up with a new one, or rather a key change to the old plan — the dogs wouldn’t drop the bombs before they detonated. As if involuntary kamikaze dogs weren’t bad enough, the training involved starving the dogs and placing food under tanks to train them to run toward and under tanks.
But things didn’t go as well in the field as they did in the training schools. In battle, many of the dogs refused to dive under the tanks while they were being shot at, which hadn’t happened in training. Food can only motivate an animal so much. I could put a pack of Hebrew Nationals hot dogs next to my vacuum cleaner and my dog wouldn’t go near it, and a vacuum is somewhat less noisy than a tank. The dogs that didn’t flee were sometimes shot and recovered by the Germans, in hopes of examining the weaponry to potentially copy it themselves. The trouble there was that Soviet bombs were less advanced than what they Germans were already using. A much larger problem was that the dogs had been trained with Soviet tanks, not German ones. Soviet and German tanks used different types of fuel, so some dogs followed that distinct scent to the tanks on their side instead of the enemy.
That said, the anti-tank dogs are known to have taken out *some tanks, including at the Battle of Kursk in which twelve tanks were destroyed by sixteen deployed dogs. This was possibly one of the most successful anti-tank dog ventures in history. The Soviets later reported that some 300 tanks total had been destroyed by anti-tank dogs, but few outside the Soviet Union actually believe that number. Unsurprisingly, anti-tank dogs started to be used less and less from 1942 onwards, though there were anti-tank dogs that continued to be trained until 1996.
This is far from the only military plan involving animals duped into committing suicide on our behalf. After hearing about the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Pennsylvania dentist and inventor Lytle S. Adams hatched a scheme to use bat as bombs to attack Japanese cities. The plan was to strap small incendiary bombs, like really small ones, with timers to bats, and release them above Japanese cities. The bats would roost in eeves and attics, causing buildings to catch fire when the bombs went off. So many buildings would ignite at once, Adams reasoned, that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to suppress the fires before they spreads. Adams had an ‘in’ with Eleanor Roosevelt so government officials actually considered his plan. By 1943, the U.S. Army was conducting serious tests. Thousands of bats were captured with nets, and were placed in ice cube trays, which helps remind you of how tiny an animal we’re talking about, and cooled to put them into hibernation to be shipped overseas. As the military did more research, they were beginning to like the plan. They found that bats can carry almost double their own weight in flight and that their natural behaviors made them perfect for sneaking into rooftops and structures undetected. They were so good at secretly penetrating buildings, that when a few escaped testing, they managed to destroy a fuel tanker, air hangar, and a general’s car. The Marine Corps took over the program as high command wanted one million bats ready to launch on Japan as soon as possible. The bats were to be loaded into bomb shaped cages filled with stacked trays, each payload holding about 1,000 bats. The bombs would be dropped by B-24 Bombers from 5,000 feet, parachutes would deploy at 1,000 feet, and the bats would spread out over a large area to infest buildings. Project “X-Ray,” as it was renamed by the Marine Corps, had already been through 30 tests at a cost of $2mil when it was cancelled in favor of the Manhattan Project and its new and devastating weapon.
If you need a daytime animal-based air attack, there’s always B.F. Skinner’s pigeon-guided missile. Called, disappointedly, Project Pigeon, Skinner’s plan was to put a camera on the front of a missile, connected to a tiny screen in the nose cone, where would be nestled a pigeon, whose job was to peck at the screen to guide the missile to the target. As the pigeons pecked, cables harnessed to each one’s head would mechanically steer the missile until it finally reached its mark. Alas, there was no escape hatch. Skinner had already used pigeons in his psychological research, training them to press levers for food. An obsessive inventor, he had been pondering weapons targeting systems one day when he saw a flock of birds maneuvering in formation in the sky. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” he said. “Could they not guide a missile? Was the answer to the problem waiting for me in my own back yard?” ….No. Despite a successful demonstration of the trained pigeons, officials remained skeptical and eventually decided to terminate the project.
Not all oddball military animals get a one-way ticket, though. The US Navy, the same organization that gave my husband his amazing skills with electronics, has a crack squad of … dolphins. Or crack pod, I suppose. The Navy Marine Mammal Program at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, California trains 85 dolphins and 50 sea lions to carry out a range of military tasks, from locating underwater mines to flagging the presence of enemy swimmers for harbor defense. The program first started in 1960 when the Navy studied Notty, a female Pacific white-sided dolphin. The Navy hoped to study the dolphin’s biomechanics and then use its findings for developing faster torpedoes, but quickly the focus changed to covert ops. Military researchers soon realized that the dolphins themselves could become a battlefield asset.
Dolphins have seen occasional use during war. In 1970 and 1971, five of the cetaceans guarded an Army ammunition pier in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, providing surveillance to thwart enemy swimmers. Dolphins were also deployed from Bahrain during the Tanker War, a late phase of the Iran-Iraq war in which the warring neighbors targeted one another’s oil vessels after the US got involved in 1987, to protect Kuwaiti oil exports. The animals even helped provide security for the Republican National Convention of 1996, which took place at the waterside San Diego Convention Center less than a month after a bombing at the summer Olympics in Atlanta. Dolphins returned to the Persian Gulf in 2003, to clear mines ahead of coalition vessels during the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The sea mammals make attractive military assets because of their intelligence and trainability — as well as their speed in the water, and an echolocation ability that far outperforms the best electronic competitors. Their echolocation is especially useful for identifying underwater mines. When a dolphin finds one, the animals swim back to their trainers, who might give them a transponder to drop near the mine in order to flag its location.
But dolphins *could also be trained to kill, according to one persistent rumor surrounding the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. In his memoir on life as a Navy SEAL, Brandon Webb writes about a training exercise in San Diego to evade enemy military dolphins. Trainers used the mammals “to track down enemy divers, outfitting them with a device strapped onto the head that contains a [simulated] compressed gas needle,” Webb writes. “Once the dolphin has tracked you down, it butts you; the needle shoots out and pokes you, creating an embolism.” An air or gas bubble injected into a vein or artery can quickly travel into the organs, something that’s potentially lethal. Webb sums it up: “Within moments, you’re dead.” The program’s FAQ page emphatically denies ever training dolphins “to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships.”
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. One more critter career before we go. In New Delhi in 2001, rhesus monkeys began stealing items from government buildings and destroying valuable equipment. So, the Indian government opted to simply employ bigger monkeys to guard their facilities. They theorized that the large langur monkeys would frighten off the smaller animals, forcing them to move into new areas away from the civil service buildings. Paid in bananas, the langur employees proved their worth by attacking any other monkeys on sight. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.