There are several theories about the history of Labor Day but none I’ve found pay any attention to the other than human animals used in labor, and that seems an oversight. The history of animals used in labor is frankly neither humane nor pleasant (and although perhaps much the same can be said of the history of human labor, that’s not my beat), starting with dogs used by our hunter-gatherer ancestors but really ramping up as we moved into agriculture. Wild animals were of course first domesticated for many different jobs: as food sources, clothing sources, to move those things we puny humans wanted moved but didn’t have the strength required. As humans evolved we saw what we felt we needed in the “raw material” of other animals: that the strength and stamina of horses, oxen and elephants could be controlled and utilized as pre-industrial engines; that the keen sense of hearing, sight and smell found in dogs could aid first in hunting and later in law enforcement and soldiering; that the navigational prowess and homing instinct of pigeons could expand our territorial interests much beyond a day’s walk.

When it comes to animals in labor, some things have changed over time while much has remained the same although, for most of us, now out of sight and consequently out of mind. Many species are still used for food and clothing, and draft animals (those worked to pull) may no longer be so common in the U.S. but that’s a practice still seen around the world. Newer animal jobs still rely on humans working with the plastic nature of other species in order to shape them to our needs, such as a dog’s natural desire to please and aid fellow pack members honed to produce seeing-eye dogs and even those therapy dogs who visit hospitalized patients.

There are some pretty out there examples of animal’s jobs as well, such as bees (excellent sense of smell) used to detect explosives, ferrets (agile tunnel travelers) used to lay communication cables, dolphins trained to place underwater mines and other military tasks, and dogs used to sniff out termites and other pest insects.

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