War Chickens Warn of Gas Attacks

K U W A I T, Feb. 25, 2003 -- Army Sgt. Rodney Brown was called up to serve as a tank mechanic with Delta Company of the 2nd Tank Battalion, now stationed in the Kuwaiti desert not far from the border with Iraq. But these days, he has another job that may be just as important: taking care of chickens.

Delta Company is just one of several front-line units that have been buying up chickens in Kuwait to use them as a crude kind of early-warning system in case of a chemical attack.

"Poultry have very weak respiratory systems," said Brown, who used to raise organic chickens on his family farm in upstate New York. "They're like a canary in a coal mine. They'll die first. So it's a good indication of a gas attack.

"It's unfortunate that you have to use them, but it's to save the troops," he added.

For the past few days, Brown has been taking care of three plump white chickens in a makeshift pen. He feeds them corn and whatever else he can find to mix in their meal. The chickens pass their days quietly, sheltered from the hot desert sun by camouflage tenting.

"I expected to see camels," Brown said. "I didn't expect to see chickens here."

The chickens will be deployed with the troops if there is a war with Iraq. They will be posted like sentries and watched carefully to see if they succumb to poisonous gases.

These decidedly low-tech chemical detectors may turn out to be more valuable than anyone expected.

ABCNEWS has learned that some of the expensive, high-tech detectors military officials are counting on to warn of chemical or biological attacks have malfunctioned. A reporter who visited troops near the Kuwait-Iraq border recently said the inanimate detectors were constantly going off even though there was no poisonous gas in the air.

This is not the first time that poultry has been pressed into protective service for the military. American forces used fowls during the Gulf War also. One morning, a group of soldiers awoke to find their chickens dead. The soldiers panicked, thinking they had been gassed and not yet felt the effects.

Only after investigating more closely did they discover the chickens had frozen overnight when the temperature had plunged. The chickens then came in handy as that night's meal.

Mike Cerre contributed to this report.

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