By Steve Weinstein
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By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
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By Jesse Jarnow
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Eleven out of 10: TV news experts agree Saddam Hussein's seafaring forces ain't worth a pitcher of spit. But don't tell that to Zak, the U.S. Navy's premier combat-ready California sea lion. You'd only hurt his feelings.
In a recent pinniped-and-pony show, the navy said Zak would do everything within his aquatic power to keep our ships safe from enemy Islamic frogmen.
Hailing from San Diego, Zak was trained in the navy's marine mammal warrior program, which in the past has focused on the military applications of dolphins. Having keen underwater sight, Zak is said to be excellent at spotting wetsuited troublemakers while on patrol. Zak can raise the alarm, clamp an enemy's leg with a handcuff-like thing attached to a buoy, or even chase a fleeing terrorist onto dry land. Since no enemy frogmen have yet done us harm, there can be no doubt Zak is a highly effective deterrent.
Perhaps because Flipper and Keiko have ruined public taste for cetaceans as tools of humankind, the navy is using a happy face to showcase Bahrain Zak. A photo essay entitled "Zak on Patrol" has been widely distributed, showing pics of the sea lion swimming merrily past a rusty barge and displaying a powerful-looking set of jaws.
The navy is said to have used trained sea mammals to protect Republicans at their national convention in San Diego in 1996.
Those who protest that a sea lion cannot know he is being set up for combat duty, as an enlisted man would, are just troublemaking grumblers. Historically, there have always been a few in the military who would use any animal in combat if it could be cajoled into taking orders. In World War II, the U.S. launched Project X-Ray, a plan to bomb Japan with kamikaze bats carrying tiny incendiary satchels. The operation collapsed in the testing phase, when the bats went awry and incinerated a military airfield in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
On the navy's Marine Mammal Web page (www.spawar.navy.mil/sandiego/technology/mammals), readers learn that our brave sea lion squad has been trained to tag mines and that ominous-sounding studies are under way "to find out what sounds they can listen to without changing their hearing abilities." Other scientific papers cited reveal the tale of a sea lion retrieving a depth charge in 1972 and the use of a type of saltpeter in reducing testosterone in male dolphins.