The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They’re fierce, furry and ready to protect China

(Chinese Air Force Network/Ministry of National Defense)
Placeholder while article actions load

BEIJING — They're fierce. They're furry. And they're ready to protect the motherland.

The People's Liberation Army revealed Monday that it has trained a small unit of macaque monkeys to protect a northern air force base from birds.

The monkeys’ handlers call their newest recruits the Chinese military’s “secret weapon,” and  state-run media highlighted the primates' impressive skills in photos that were by turns cute, menacing and odd.

For years, migrating birds have wreaked havoc at the air base, threatening catastrophic failure in aircraft by getting sucked into their engines.

The military has tried scarecrows, bird netting, firecrackers and even live ammunition to decimate their nests… to no avail. Soldiers — showing valor in the face of such risks as slipping and falling — had climbed up trees in the past to destroy the nests, said a captain quoted on a news Web site run by China’s military, only to see those strategic spots retaken by birds the next day.

Enter the monkeys.

The macaques are trained to respond to precise whistle commands from their handlers, according to the Chinese military, leaping into action, clambering up trees to destroy nests and scare away birds, according to an account on China’s Air Force News Web site on Sunday. The particular air force base employing the monkeys was left unidentified, described simply as being in the Beijing military zone. Base commanders in the account said the monkeys have destroyed more than 180 nests, at a pace of six to eight nests per monkey per day.

China’s monkey program, of course, isn’t the first or the oddest attempt to tap animals for military use.

The Pentagon has famously studied and deployed dolphins under the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, studying them for torpedo design and training them to detect floating mines and enemy divers (as well as angering some animal rights advocates in the process).

There have been homing pigeons, as well as counterstrike falcons trained to intercept such pigeons.

And dogs, most notably, have worked wars almost as long as they’ve been domesticated, serving in operations as critical as the 2011 assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. One war dog was even recently captured by the Taliban, which paraded it as a hostage in a propaganda video.

(The dog, the Taliban captors reassured, was in good health and being cared for on a diet of chicken and beef kebabs.)

In the recent account of China’s new monkey force, the military reporter ends his article by giving the primates as good a dollop of propagandic praise as any halfway decent PLA soldier receives.

The reporter describes a Hawk aircraft roaring into the sky, as he looks back at the monkeys. And he finds, “My heart is full of respect. They are worthy of this life as guards of security and loyal comrades.”

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.