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Is Hvaldimir the beluga a Russian spy? He wouldn’t be the first militarized mammal


The Sunday Magazine10:00The history of animal espionage

It may be impossible to interrogate Hvaldimir the beluga on his connection to Russian espionage, but if he is a spy, he wouldn’t be the first sea creature to be given a covert mission. 

The whale first surfaced near Norway in 2019 carrying camera gear marked “equipment of St. Petersburg” prompting some to wonder if the whale was a Russian spy. It was named Hvaldimir, which is a combination of the Norwegian word for whale and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The whale returned to Scandinavian waters in May, this time off the coast of Sweden.

“It’s all shrouded in mystery,” Gervase Phillips, a lecturer at the U.K.’s Manchester Metropolitan University told The Sunday Magazine guest host David Common.

“There’s definitely a history, there’s definitely a precedent,” Phillips said of military forces enlisting animals. “But it’s really very hard to say for sure what is going on.”

“It seems to me if he was [a spy], he’s quit,” said the academic who wrote about Hvaldimir in 2019. “Animals have always been caught up in our foolish conflicts, in massive numbers.” 

Aquatic agents

Hvladimir wouldn’t be the first sea creature to be recruited by humans. During the First World War, the British trained sea lions to chase German U-boats. 

But it wasn’t really a success. The sea lions, which were former circus performers, decided to pursue other interests.

In this handout photo from the U.S. Navy, Sgt. Andrew Garrett watches K-Dog, a bottlenose dolphin, leap out of the water while training near the USS Gunston Hall on March 18, 2003 in the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Navy/Getty Images)

“Once they got into the North Sea, they generally proved more interested in fish than pursuing German submarines,” said Phillips. 

The U.S. also tried training sea life to join its navy. It employed dolphins to protect its harbours. 

That turned out to be a success because dolphins, Phillips said, are the dogs of the sea. 

“They’re often doing the same kind of work that a military working dog would do on land. So mine detection, sentry duty, tracking, those kind of functions, a dolphin or a similar marine mammal can do in the sea,” said Phillips. 

Americans used dolphins in the Vietnam War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and they are still active members of the navy, he added. 

 A dolphin swims towards a torpedo.
A dolphin trained by the U.S. Navy to locate mines and torpedoes in 1973. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Pigeon spy photographers

While the pigeon may be seen as a pest, the bird has actually spent time in the military with a role comparable to the world’s first drones. 

Julius Neubronner, a German pharmacist, used pigeons to deliver prescriptions. But then he came up with another use for the birds.

“Eventually he hit on the idea of sort of attaching small cameras to burly birds with a timer on the shutter,” said Phillips. 

“Pigeons are enormously smart creatures and you can train them to distinguish between manmade and natural features of the landscape.”

A model of a pigeon wearing a camera.
A replica of Cher Ami, the U.S. Signal Corps photo pigeon that was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in WWI for heroic service after flying over France wounded for 25 miles in 25 minutes with an automatic camera strapped to his chest taking battlefield photos. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1907, Neubronner got a patent for it, and it worked, sort of. The pigeon spy career failed, as the intel they gathered wasn’t all that useful.

“What you got with your pigeon cameras was pictures of trees and fields and stuff that would be basically of interest to pigeons,” said Phillips. 

As technology advanced, spy planes took over, and the pigeon became better known as a nuisance that leaves excrement on apartment balconies.

Early equine therapy

Canada has its own history of animals serving in the security services. Dogs and their expert sniffers have been used by police and the armed forces. And horses were used heavily in the world wars. 

During the First World War, Canada sent over 6,000 horses along with the 1st Canadian Division, according to James McKillip, a historian with the Canadian Forces directorate of history and heritage.

A black and white photo of a member of the Canadian military and a horse drinking water.
A member of the Canadian Cavalry waters the horses at camp during the First World War. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

While McKillip said the first thing people will think of is the calvary, that was only a small percentage of what horses did in the war effort. He said horses were also used to tow artillery, and as transport.

But their unique benefit came from helping soldiers. McKillip said battle-fatigued or shell-shocked soldiers who couldn’t fight were tasked with caring for the horses. 

A man pets a young bear.
Harry Colebourn and his bear Winnie are shown in this handout photo from 1914 supplied by Colebourn’s great-granddaughter Lindsay Mattick. Canadian soldier Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian, bought a bear cub and took it to England at the onset of the First World War. (The Canadian Press)

“[The Canadian military] started to realize that a lot of these guys were bonding with the horses, and it was helping them deal with the emotional strain that they’d gone through,” said McKillip. 

“The effect of that was there were quite a few guys who … were able to return to normal service before the war was over.”

By the Second World War, horses were nearly phased out. Today, horses take up a ceremonial role in the Canadian military, performing the Musical Ride across Canada each year

Beyond horses and dogs, McKillip said animals such as goats and bears have played a role in military units as mascots, such as the legendary bear Winnie.

A dog handler walks a military dog, with an armoured vehicle and more military members in the background.
Dog handler Milenko Pandurevic walks with 5-year-old Balto, an explosives sniffing dog, during a patrol by Canadian army soldiers from bulldog company 1th Battalion, 22nd royal regiment in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan on June 25, 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Success or failure?

Military animals have proved to be a mixed bag for tactical effectiveness. As technology advances, many other creatures may go the way of the pigeon and the horse. 

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any new recruits for international war efforts. 

Whether Hvladimir the beluga is a spy or just a friendly whale, it will be important for Canada to keep an eye on creatures in its Arctic waters, Phillips said.

An image of a beluga whale with a harness attached to it's body being fed fish.
Is Hvaldimir a spy? We may never know. (Jorgen Ree Wiig, Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries via The Associated Press)

“I think the little fellow’s his own boss now … These are animals at the end of the day,” said Phillips. 


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