A Navy dolphin tasked with hunting for mines in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr went absent without leave for more than 48 hours last week. The dolphin, named Tacoma, eventually returned to duty on Friday, safe and sound.

But that hasn’t stopped People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals from complaining this week to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the military use of animals amounts to animal cruelty.

PETA says using dolphins and sea lions to intercept terrorists and mines, chickens and pigeons to detect the presence of biological and chemicals weapons and dogs to detect weapons and rescue troops "is cruel and may cost lives rather than saving them."

"On behalf of our [750,000 members and supporters dedicated to animal protection], we respectfully request that you order the military to stop using animals," requested PETA.

It’s enough to make you want to Flipper them off.

The Navy began studying dolphins in the late 1950s. Scientists thought that dolphins’ smooth skin and speed could help design better torpedoes, ships and submarines.

The Navy soon learned dolphins have exceptional biological sonar unmatched by manmade sonars in detecting objects in water 10 to 40 feet deep. Dolphins can hone in on specific sounds despite noises from boat engines, people, waves and lapping water.

Dolphins are able to make deep dives repeatedly without experiencing "the bends" or decompression sickness as do human divers and can help Navy divers working in the open ocean.

Dolphins can also run untethered and return home.

The 75 dolphins and sea lions in use today are well taken care of by Navy sailors, civilian handlers and contracted trainers. The dolphins are "paid" for their duties in fish, about 20 pounds per day each.

The use of mine-hunting dolphins in Operation Iraqi Freedom is the first in a war zone. The dolphins are trained to place a marker a short distance away from a mine and to never touch the mines.

So far, the dolphins have not disappointed. Since arriving in the war zone last week, the Navy’s dolphins have helped clear 22 mines.

This accomplishment, if it hasn’t saved lives directly so far, certainly has helped clear the way for humanitarian aid to arrive in Umm Qasr.

PETA’s rationale for opposing military use of — if it can be called that — is absurd.

"Wars are human endeavors. While a person, a political party, or a nation may decide that war is necessary, the animals never do. Like civilians, they often become the victims of war, but now, the U.S. military is deliberately putting animals in harm’s way. These animals never enlisted, they know nothing of Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and they probably won’t survive," argues PETA.

Animals against the war? Who died and left PETA to decide what animals think?

There’s no question that animals haven’t "decided" that war in Iraq is necessary. But that’s a specious argument since animals simply can’t reason on such a level in the first place.

Interdependence between humans and animals has existed for thousands of years. How would human society have progressed if PETA had been around at the dawn of agriculture, another important "human endeavor"?

Animals, apparently, would have had to "volunteer" to become food, pull wagons, plow fields and guard livestock.

Even guide dogs for blind people — since they don’t "volunteer" for work — are a no-no according to PETA's logic.

War certainly is a human endeavor but nature isn’t all that warm and fuzzy. "Red in tooth and claw," is how English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described nature. Wild animals exist in a permanent, violent war for survival.

Humans, in many respects, have eased that condition for countless animals, including the Navy’s dolphins.

No doubt mine-hunting dolphins are at some risk. But that risk, which must be offset against the risks faced by dolphins in the wild such as killer whales and parasitic disease, reduces risks to our brave troops and to the innocent Iraqi families awaiting humanitarian relief.

If animals can accomplish such heroic tasks, it would be absurd not to use them.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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