A history of Animal Use by American Police

It is a less understood dimension of animal exploitation which transforms man’s best friends into deadly servants of American racism. However it is still animal exploitation.

By Timothy Hurwitz

The police are 21st century fugitive slave catchers. Just as they were when they first arose two hundred years ago from the dark shadows of America’s racial history.

The capitalist system was built off the labor of enslaved Africans. And racism was created as the one of the system’s ideological justifications. And police were created as the system’s enforcers.

American police have for generations used animals to protect the system of capitalism; which is the source of the oppressive social-political conditions facing the world today.

Dogs have historically been used by police departments to terrorize racial minorities. Horses have historically been used by mounted patrols to break up social unrest.

Both uses represent an abuse of animals by the capitalist system; to maintain a violent social order in which wealth and power are controlled by a small group of billionaires and their state.

Animals are used as an integral ‘tool’ of law enforcement. And law enforcement, in turn,  protects capitalism which makes money off the exploitation of humans and nonhumans.


Police dogs are employed at the federal as well as state levels and are called “K9s” (police must be really proud of themselves for thinking of that).

American police dogs were an idea initially imported from continental Europe where they were first used on a large scale to track criminals in the mid-19th century.

Breeds of dogs most often employed by police are German shepherds and pitbulls. Pitbulls have newly become a preferred K9 breed, despite and because of how they are considered to be dangerous.

In the modern age, K9s have been used increasingly since 9/11. Primarily for four purposes: narcotics, weapons and bomb detection, and cadaver searches. The US Customs and Border patrol also uses dogs for searching and apprehending suspects.

The role of narcotics detection K9s (or “sniffers”) is to locate drugs and apprehend the suspect. Since the War on Drugs began in the 1980s, K9s have been coerced into a central role in policing African American and Latino communities. The result is a prison population growth of nearly 800%.

According to the government, about half of all prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders, mostly people of color. Now the USA is today the mass incarceration capitol of the world, giving rise to a modern racism that’s been termed the New Jim Crow.

In some common law legal systems, police dogs are afforded a conditional personhood  which makes the act of killing them a felony. And yet police kill a dog every 98 minutes.

K9s are even sainted as heroes, such as when they serve national interests—unlike the billions of animals we consume for food.

This conditional personhood for animals who aid America in its racial terrorism is further evidenced by the National Police Dog Foundation and the K9 Academy.

While animal rights activists believe in the personhood of all animals, the state believes in the personhood of only those animals which it can use to legitimize its violence. “Animals are not the perpetrators of violence; they are the victims of violence,”
says activist Laura Schleifer.

The media and the right-wing focus on gun violence in America as the myth of “black-on-black crime.” But gun violence is not a product of genetic racial differences but is a valid expression of urban rage.

Gun violence is rooted in the decaying trust between racial minorities and police, weapons accessibility, and no hope for the future because of limited opportunity.

Rather than addressing these structural causes of racial oppression, the police arm themselves and forgo their individuality to act as protectorates of the capitalist system.

As a punitive rather than rehabilitative reaction to gun violence – instead of passing effective gun control or focusing on social programs – the state uses police dogs to criminalize communities of color.

The result? According to the state, nearly one-fifth of America’s 2.2 million prisoners (approximately 60% of whom are black or brown) is locked up on weapons offenses.


barking-dog-225_0According to a 2013 study, all police dog bites nationwide are sustained by blacks and Latinos. Studies show K9s reveal the hidden racism of the cops who deploy them.

K9s are trained to be racist because police and the broader society sees the face of criminality as non-white.

African Americans and Latinos are specifically targeted by police dogs. In Los Angeles police dogs have been trained to attack black and brown suspects.

During the Ferguson uprising of 2014, an emotional response to the shooting of a black teenager, police dogs were trained to attack only African Americans. The protests popularized the nascent Black Lives Matter movement and gave rise to a new era of anti-racist struggle in the United States.

These contemporary examples echo the ghosts of America’s civil rights era. In the early 1960s, the American South exploded into chaos as the fight for civil rights flared up nationwide.
An iconic photo of a police dog attacking a 17-year old demonstrator in Birmingham, Alabama crystallized this state violence at its very most sinister.


Horses are often used by police for specialized duties such as crowd control during riots or political demonstrations. Their size and stature are meant to intimidate large groups of people.

The first police force in the world, the French constabulary, used horses as early as the 1700s. Subsequent European colonization of Africa and Latin America popularized the idea of police horses. This is how the USA came to adopt the idea.

Today police horses are used by law enforcement in most major American cities. Despite recent downsizes, New York is reputed to have the biggest “horse force”, if you will. San Diego and Boston police no longer use mounted horses, ever since the early 2010s.

Police horses are also used by Border Patrol officers along the US-Mexico border. The agency in tandem with the political right claims this is to secure the border. Though they already use gunboats, drones, barricades, a 21-foot wall spanning 1,900 miles, and even a few stylish SUVs.

14593549_165181900600927_1621688570_n  police-dog

We share common ground with people’s movements worldwide who are fighting the capitalist system and the oppressive ideologies which it creates to justify itself, such as racism and speciesism.

Veganism advocates for abolishing the property status of all animals. Veganism has the distinction of not only opposing animal abuse but opposing animal use. This includes the use of animals by police.

As vegans we must support anti-racism activists in their call to demilitarize and defund police. Because the police are the defenders of the system we seek to abolish.


Timothy Hurwitz is a contributing writer for the international animal rights organization Collectively Free. He also does vegan outreach for The Advocacy of Veganism Society. A Jewish Communist who is involved in anti-racist politics, he currently works at homeless shelters in Oregon.

Special thank you to Michelle Alexander, Atlanta Black Star, Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, Oxfam, and The Sentencing Project, for the research used in this article.