Soldiers in a paratrooper recon unit preparing for a mission in Lebanon gathered in a circle and listened to the briefing. The time: the Second Lebanon War, summer of 2006. Next to the soldiers, in absolute silence, stood well-trained llamas harnessed with heavy military vests. Each llama bore logistical equipment weighing dozens of kilos.
The integration of llamas into IDF combat operations became an issue of contention during the secound Lebanon war. and is still considered problematic today, but this isn’t the first time the IDF has conscripted animals into its ranks.
The first animals to serve in the IDF were mules, camels, and donkeys—in the 1948 War of Independence. These pack animals played a significant logistical role in some of the war’s major operations. After the war, the IDF discharged most of the creatures, but secretly maintained a core team of mules that were trained to assist special forces in scaling Mt. Hermon and other mountainous areas in the Golan Heights, where the terrain is so rough that no vehicle can negotiate them. The last mule was discharged from active service in 1956 and the team was disbanded.
Animals returned to the headlines after the December 1988 Operation “Blue and Brown” that was waged against Ahmed Jibril’s terrorist bunkers south of Nueimeh, Lebanon. During the operation, in which thirty terrorists were killed as well as the Golani battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Amir Meital, the IDF tried employing anti-tank dogs. The idea backfired. The dogs were killed in battle, either by IDF fire or terrorist weapons, before they could destroy the munitions bunkers as planned. Today, dogs have a vital and tactical role in special ops. (See the article “The ‘Oketz’ Unit)
A far cry from the common canine, one might be surprised to see a llama … in action. The llama is a descendant of the camel family and is a native of the Andes Mountains in South America. Its body is covered with soft wool and its disposition is extremely mild. Standing 1.2 meters (just under four feet) in height, it has exceptional strength. Llamas are both strong and quiet, and can traverse harsh terrain, including mountains and snowy areas. They easily acclimate to loud noise and don’t panic from explosions or weapons fire, making them perfectly suited to accompany troops. “If properly trained, the llama grows inseparably attached to the humans who care for it,” says Major Ofer Cohen, a former officer in the air force’s elite Shaldag reconnaissance unit. In recent years, the unit has been responsible for many of the animals in IDF service, including llamas.
The story of llamas in the IDF began before the Second Lebanon War when the IDF routinely “leased” some of the large mammals from an alpaca farm in Mitzpe Ramon in southern Israel.
The llamas successfully participated in special forces training exercises in preparation for missions in mountainous terrain along the northern border. They also took part in combat operations. “Once, at the end of a mission, as the troops were loading the gear on a truck, the llamas forced their way through the stretchers and backpacks and got on the vehicle in order to be with their soldier-caretakers. A tremendous effort was needed to convince the animals to get out,” recalls Major Ofer.
“Llamas have unique qualities. Since their entire body is covered with wool that can hide troops from enemy heat-detection devices, and they’re capable of carrying equipment in areas that vehicles can’t traverse, IDF troops can surprise an enemy from unanticipated directions.
“On ambushes, the llamas can lie with the soldiers for two, even three days, without moving. They provide the soldiers with thermal protection in winter and lug the necessary equipment for a prolonged stakeout. American officers examined the soldier-llama synergy for possible llama use in combat in the mountains of Afghanistan.”
Despite the time-consuming preparations before the Second Lebanon War, the llama did not emerge from the campaign with glory. Even in the midst of the fighting, the media saw fit to report that the llamas “had flubbed it” at the moment of truth, when they failed to climb the terrain the IDF infantry had to traverse as they penetrated deep into Lebanon. Instead of aiding the forces—the llamas held them up.
According to Ofer, however, the main problem was linked to the general blunders habituated by the army in the Second Lebanon War. Instead of attaching the llamas to troops that knew how to work with them, the animals were transferred to soldiers who had never seen one before in their lives. “Under these circumstances, a failure was waiting to happen. Learning how to handle a llama takes several hours. If they had been given to soldiers trained in even basic llama handling, the animals would have clambered up the mountains without a problem. The reports of llamas panicking at the sound of gunfire were simply not true. Llamas stay close to the fighters even if bullets are shrieking overhead.”
During the course of the war, the media claimed that the IDF had abandoned the llamas as the fighting progressed. These reports, too, were inaccurate to say the least, but understandably so. What was not known then, and only now can be told, is that under a veil of secrecy, special forces troops continued to train with llamas for operations along the Lebanese border—missions that in the end were never carried out. After the war, training with the gentle South American creatures continued.
Today, other exotic animals also serve in the IDF, most of them coming from the Ramat Gan Safari and other zoos.
As part of a pilot program that began a few years ago, oryxes and Barbary sheep (particulary aggressive animals native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco) were introduced at a number of army bases. The oryxes’ job is to eat the grass, (instead of soldiers having to frequently spray it) in order to reduce the danger of fire spreading. The aggressive sheep, however, are also tasked with guarding ammunition storerooms.
“They are very sensitive about protecting their territory,” says Major Ofer, referring to the Moroccan sheep. “They’re also very cunning. They hide behind a bush and attack anyone entering their territory. exactly at the right moment (tactically speaking) There have been instances where the sheep repelled individuals who tried to approach weapons storerooms at large bases, which are very difficult to secure 100 percent.”
The IDF has also released oryxes, known for their insatiable love of grass, in a number of bases in the north of the country as well as the Soreq Base near Gedera in the south. The idea is for the oryxes to eat the bountiful grass that grows in and around the base, as well as the branches that reach the ground, so that if a fire breaks out, the chances of it spreading will be significantly reduced.
“The goal is not to destroy the vegetation, but to prevent it from overgrowing. An area that the animals have cleared won’t catch fire if you throw a lit match on the ground. I remember a large fire in a Jewish National Fund forest a few years ago, and a great deal of area was destroyed, but when the fire reached the base it stopped in its tracks because there was nothing for it to burn,” recalls Cohen.
Another animal that has garnered praise for its contribution to the IDF is the antelope. After the Second Lebanon War, seven antelopes from the Ramat Gan Safari were sent directly to the thick growth just beyond the perimeter fence on Lebanese border near Katamon Creek. The antelopes devoured the vegetation and created trails, which helped the IDF discover a number of Hezbollah bunkers near the fence. The antelopes continue to roam the area beyond the perimeter fence (technically, Israeli territory). One of the animals was shot and killed a few years ago by Hezbollah fire, but excluding that incident, the rest continue to enjoy the lush vegetation and require no human care.
Animal service in the IDF is not without problems: oryxes grazing near soldiers’ quarters, turf battles between aggressive sheep and wild dogs, and the danger of disease spreading. Major Cohen explains that some of the problems have arisen because the IDF stopped managing the animals’ water sources.
IsraelDefense has learned that the IDF is looking at the possibility of releasing all of its animals (excluding dogs), in order to cut veterinary costs and put an end to the problems on some of the bases. It is even considering ending special operations training with llamas.
The IDF spokesperson’s response: “Regarding the care of animals in general and wild animals in particular, staff work is underway in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture, Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the IDF to arrange the proper care of wild animals in the IDF.”
The IDF says that no decision has been made to retire the animals from active service at this stage.