- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

CAMP FOX, Kuwait Each U.S. Marine has been issued about $450 worth of gear to protect against exposure to deadly agents. The gas mask, glove liners, bulky charcoal-lined suit and boot covers are a state of the art system that, in the end, may be triggered by a pigeon.

Small cages stuffed with birds pigeons, chickens and even doves have been scattered around U.S. military base camps throughout the Persian Gulf.

The birds' sensitive nervous systems are considered an ideal early-warning sign for the presence of hazardous biological or chemical weapons.

"We place them around the camp, near the duty stations, and the watch officer keeps an eye on them," said Cpl. Kristina Smith, 21, who cares for the birds at Camp Fox, a support and logistics camp about an hour west of Kuwait City. "When something happens, these birds would be the first to show it."

The U.S. military has been using sentinel animals, as they are called, for decades. The Navy also has deployed in the Gulf some of the 20 sea lions it has trained in recovering and defusing mines. Two of the sea lions also specialize in locating enemy divers.

Scientific trials in the 1960s discovered that goats have the closest respiratory system to a human being, while a pigeon and other midsize birds were more sensitive.

The birds react to poison gas as a human being would, with convulsions, dilated pupils and eventual death.

But the dose that will kill a pigeon or chicken is just short of what would incapacitate an average human being making it the perfect early warning.

Soldiers say the military would probably use rabbits or gerbils if they had the same properties.

Cpl. Smith has been caring for two dozen birds at Camp Fox since they arrived two months ago, and she is clearly fond of them.

"I don't know where they came from," she said, cradling a dove in steady hands. "Most look like regular pigeons, but most are far too tame to be regular birds." Cpl. Smith, from Atlanta, said they might have come from a local bird breeder.

Only one has a name Homer but they do exhibit personalities.

"They like to throw their bird seed around," preferring to peck it off the gravel at the bottom of their cages than dine out of the plastic feed cups, she said.

The U.S. Army has been experimenting with keeping chickens in vehicles as they drive through the vast Kuwaiti desert, a strategy that hasn't worked so well because the birds overheat in hot buses or cannot breathe when their cages are mounted to the roofs of speeding vehicles.

Soldiers have reportedly taken to calling those fallen comrades "KFC" for Kuwaiti Field Chicken.

Animal-rights groups have criticized the use of sentinel birds, saying they did not choose to enlist in military service.

"These animals never enlisted, they know nothing of Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and they probably won't survive," Arathi Jayaram, a spokeswoman for the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month.

Another activist group, Machipongo, Va.-based United Poultry Concerns Inc., has started a letter campaign urging President Bush to end the use of chickens to detect deadly chemicals in Iraq.

But soldiers are, not surprisingly, unsympathetic.

"Better them than me," shrugged Pfc. Greg Woodard, from Mountain Home, Ark.

Pfc. Woodard, 27, enlisted in the Marines because he wanted to learn a useful skill, such as welding. Several months ago, he was reassigned to company training and maintaining the nuclear-, biological- and chemical-protection gear, called the NBC unit. Although he wasn't thrilled with the new responsibilities, Pfc. Woodard says now that he can probably make more money in civilian life with his NBC knowledge.

In the post-September 11 age of terrorism, those with chemical, biological and nuclear protection experience will find plenty of opportunities, according to several soldiers who switched into the field from machine gunning, food service, maintenance and other specialties.

"You know how everyone was buying plastic and tape," said Lance Cpl. Brandon Arndt of Neillsville, Wis., sweating inside the sturdy tent that serves as Camp Fox's NBC headquarters. "That's the stuff I'll know all about. That, and how to use these suits."

The military has sophisticated sensors deployed throughout northern Kuwait to sniff out the presence of Iraqi chemical weapons. But Cpl. Smith said she's betting on a combination of technology and sentinel birds to detect airborne poisons.

"I'm glad we have both," she said, gently stroking a bird before putting it back into the cage.

"But I'd really like to let all these guys go someday."

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