In December 1941, a 60-year-old dental surgeon from Pennsylvania named Dr. Lytle S. Adams was driving home from Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. Earlier that day, he’d witnessed the mass exodus of millions of bats from the caves, a ritual that occurs each day at twilight.
Tuning into the radio that evening on the road home, the news suddenly broke of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Like most Americans, Adams was shocked. He also couldn’t get the bats out of his mind. A month later, Adams wrote a letter to the White House proposing an idea he believed would be the ultimate retaliation for the attack: a bomb made of bats.
The Bat Bomb – as it became known – is loaded with trays containing over a thousand hibernating bats. These bats have no idea they’ve been recruited as suicide bombers in a war that bears no relation to them, but glued to their legs are napalm incendiaries.
When the bomb drops, the outer casing falls away and the trays open like an accordion, freeing and awakening the bats. As they take flight, a hair-thin wire activates the incendiaries giving the bats a thirty-minute expiry date. The bats instinctively dive beneath eaves and into attics and the Japanese cities, mostly constructed of wood and paper, will swiftly burn to the ground.
Approved by President Roosevelt, who invested $2 million into the project, the U.S. military ran numerous tests of the Bat Bomb on a replica Japanese town in the Utah desert. But the plan was eventually abandoned as the atomic bomb became a more desirable – and ultimately more devastating – option.Array
This is just one of the stories that Marta Bogdańska tells me as we chat over Skype about her project SHIFTERS, which explores how animals have been used and exploited by humans throughout history.
From ancient times, humans have relied heavily on animal labour, from transportation and communication to search-and-rescue operations, and for war and espionage. Sanskrit hymns record the use of elephants for military purposes from as early as 1,100 BC. In World War I, eight million horses are thought to have died. During the Gulf Wars, chickens were used by the U.S. Army to detect poisonous gases (a mission codenamed “Kuwaiti Field Chicken” or KFC). And currently in Cambodia, giant rats are being trained to sniff out landmines.
Although animal labour continues to this day, Marta believes the contribution of animals is largely overlooked by humans.
“We don’t really take this kind of animal labour into account or think about on a daily basis how much work animals have done, or still do for us now,” she says.
Originally from Poland, Marta is a visual artist who learnt the basics of photography from her mother, who taught her how to develop film in their bathroom when she was a teenager. Marta studied Philosophy and Gender Studies before moving to Lebanon, where she lived for eight years and developed a number of social, cultural and artistic projects.
“Photography was always present, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve started seeing what I’m interested in and how I can combine the different fields and topics that I’ve always been working in,” Marta says.
“I feel like now everything is coming together: activism, social and participatory projects, video and photography. I also used to do a lot of interviews with people so I’m managing to put it all into one practice slowly.”
After coming across a series of newspaper articles about animals accused of being spies, Marta was inspired to create a project that would illuminate this invisible history.
“Usually these articles first show up in local newspapers and then they’re picked up by mainstream media outlets like BBC, The Guardian and LA Times, and there’s always this kind of mocking attitude like, “ah look, Egypt thought a dog can be a spy!”
It’s usually the case that these animals were actually not spies at all, but some were executed or jailed. Sometimes really sad stories,” she says.Array
The discovery of the articles led Marta to start digging in archives – from national war archives to niche corners of the web. Ironically, she found that many of the programmes that trained animals to become spies took place in Western countries, the very places that mocked these types of stories.
The stories she found were often bizarre: a remote-controlled dog, dolphins trained to recover objects from the sea bed (a programme still used today by the U.S. military) and kamikaze missile-guiding pigeons. One of my personal favourites though, is the turn-of-the-century pigeon photographer.
Julius Neubronn was a German apothecary, who one day had the bright idea to design a camera to attach to the homing pigeons he was using to transport prescriptions to his clients. For him it was a harmless, artistic pursuit but after gaining international fame, he soon attracted the attention of the army and they quickly adapted his idea for use in war surveillance.
Faced with such a wealth of material, Marta soon found she needed to limit her research. “My research period is from the invention of photography and the time it started being used for military purposes, so the end of the 19th century until the 1960s – 70s when these CIA programmes were developing,” she explains.
“I’m also mostly using photography archives. If you look back further in history you’ll have to look at paintings, drawings and other kinds of materials, which is also interesting but it’s a huge amount of material and can become overwhelming so I had to limit it.”
Her 750-page book, SHIFTERS, is a neat way of collating this rich history. “When you start researching, you’ll find there’s a lot of information about animals but it’s rarely looked at in a critical way,” says Marta. “I’m trying to put these images together and create a narrative that maybe will be able to shed new light on animal military history: their suffering, their pain, their work, all the things that tend to be forgotten and invisible.”
“I wanted the book to be really huge and heavy so you feel it’s tangible, all that suffering. And it’s printed in the style of pulp fiction novels, using a very thin paper, similar to a newspaper. So I wanted it also to represent the idea that these animals were suffering and all these other things, but they were doing it for us.
On one hand it’s huge but it also became transparent. Humans don’t really value it, they don’t want to really see it. Hence the idea: to burden them with the volume and at the same time to remind them of how they treat this history – with negligence, without seriousness, like a pulp fiction novel that you read and then you throw out and forget about it.”
Drawing on her philosophical background, Marta also explores the work of contemporary philosophers and challenges our inevitable anthropocentrism. “The word ‘agent’ means a spy or informant and on the other hand it means a subject doing action. I started thinking about what this agency could mean and that led me to animal studies, the fight for animal rights and understanding of animal intuition, animal agency, animal subjectivity and animal intentionality,” says Marta.
“I started reading French historian called Éric Baratay, who’s quite well-known now in the animal studies field. He coined the concept of “history from an animal point of view” and it’s this huge historiographical project, maybe comparable to herstory – the feminist re-readings and re-writings of history.”
“In science we always look at animals as species; we don’t use individual histories of animals. What [Baratay] does in his latest book, Animal Biographies, is write ten individual stories about ten different animals. I really like this concept, so I try to follow that idea and bring as much detail about certain individual animals into this story as well.”
One photograph in the book shows a bear sitting face to face with a soldier. Meet Wojtek, a brown bear turned army mascot after the Polish Army adopted him during the Second World War.
As well as carrying heavy ammunition, Wojtek was a morale-boosting companion for the soldiers and had a penchant for drinking beer from the bottle and accepted lit cigarettes, according to one soldier who took care of him. Wojtek was in fact drafted into the army and even given a rank and number to bypass military red tape, as pets were officially banned from combat zones.
The soldier laughs as he throws food into Wotjek’s gaping mouth, but the bear wears a restraining chain around its neck and it’s unclear what might be crossing the bear’s mind at that moment.Array
“Another interesting point when thinking about history from an animal point of view is that because it’s told by humans, only documented by humans, we only get information about those that collaborated with us,” says Marta. “We don’t hear about those animals who are resisting, fleeing, or those who didn’t want to work with us; these were just discarded from history.”
One article she found detailed how the Russians were trying to use moose in the cavalry, but ultimately failed. The moose were not collaborating as they were difficult to handle, afraid of the battlefield and prone to diseases. “I think it was great for the moose because they kind of won the battle as they never became used on a large scale compared to horses, or other pack animals,” Marta says.
Then there are the stories that will undoubtedly become lost in history, or remain uncovered because of lack of evidence. “The problem with animal spies is that we don’t really know how much of it works,” reflects Marta.
“When you read the reports of the CIA programmes and when you look at the documents, you actually find out that lots of them were cancelled because the results were inconclusive. I don’t think the CIA actually unclassified all their documents, so we don’t know how many of these programmes ever went to field operations.”
Alongside the book, Marta created a 12-minute video essay combining archival footage, films made by herself and recordings captured by the animals with a tiny HD camera. She also ran a workshop with musician Sebastian Mac, in which participants produced soundtracks in response to five archival photographs from the book.
Rather than heroise these animals, Marta hopes her project will prompt the reader to reimagine our relationship with animals and acknowledge the extent of labour animals have provided for us and continue to provide.
“I think in this project I was trying to be purposely scientific,” says Marta. “For me, it was important to show that animals really should have their own rights – not because we love them, but because they’re living creatures, they deserve their rights and they deserve respect.
I think that was the biggest issue for me: I prefer that we stop sentimentalising animals, and instead start treating them right and care about their wellbeing because we all share this planet together.”