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As new CIA documents become declassified, some surprise more than others. In one project, the CIA wanted to use cats to spy on the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
Called Acoustic Kitty, the project cost between $20 million, according to a former CIA officer Victor Marchetti. (Other sources put the cost between $15-25 million). It required each cat to be implanted in an hour-long procedure with multiple devices.
There would be a microphone in the animal’s ear canal, a radio transmitter at the back of its neck, and wire in its fur, according to the book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. The devices would record sounds from the cat’s environment and transmit them. The cat was more of a cyborg at this point.
During one of the cats training, the cat was sent to listen in to a conversation between two men in a park in Washington D.C. Sadly, the cat was hit and killed by a taxi before completing its mission. Robert Wallace of the CIA said that is a rumor, and the cat was not killed.
Some say the rest of the test were also said to be a failure due to cats being, well, cats. They got distracted by hunger and did not trail well. The project was cancelled in 1967, at least that’s the official date. In 2001, some but not all documents from the projects were declassified.
However, there are some accounts of the project not being a complete failure but somewhat a success.
“It was a serious project…the animal work was really historic,” Wallace said.
CIA’s Animal Spies
The CIA got inventive with how they wanted to spy on the Soviet Union. Besides human spies, animal spices gained popularity.
Cats, ravens, and pigeons were given a job.
Most of these animals came from a unique place called I.Q. Zoo in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Chickens that play basketball? Macaws that ride bikes? Ducks who drum? Pigs playing piano? You could find it all in I.Q. Zoo.
I.Q. Zoo: A Place Where Animals Do Human Things
In 1955 Keller and Marian Breland founded the I.Q. Zoo. At first it was not a tourist attraction but a facility using “operant conditioning” to train animals to perform extraordinary tasks. The method uses punishments and rewards for certain behaviors.
The Brelands got the idea after working with psychologist B.F. Skinner who worked on a secret government program Project Pelican. The projects trained pigeons to guide missiles in WWII.
The Brelands thought that using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, animals can be trained to do a lot.
They were correct.
They trained a bunny to kiss on command, a hamster to swing on a tiny trapeze, a chicken to play tic-tac-toe, parrots to rollerskate, and a reindeer to work a printing press. The list goes on.
The Zoo was open until 1990.
During its existence, animals were trained not only to dance and play but to also aid during the Cold War.
Animal Spies During The Cold War
The CIA trained ravens to get objects, pigeons ro warm of enemies, and cats to spy on humans and their conversations.
Most have been possible because of the work of Skinner and also Bob Bailey, who first directed the Navy’s dolphin program. (They use them to rescue naval swimmers and locate underwater mines among other tasks).
“We never found an animal we could not train. Never,” Bailey said according to Smithonian Mag.
Bailey said that it is absolutely possible to train cats.
The CIA Spy Cats
The cats were trained to pay attention to human voices more and more. The theory was that no one would pay attention to a cat, and this furry creature could listen in to important conversations. This was likely because there were a lot of feral cats wandering the streets, and people were used to seeing cats—even the head of state.
Where the cat would go could be controlled with ultrasound sound.
What exactly the cat did remains a mystery. Records of the animal training programs were lost in a 1989 fire, the existing ones are still classified.
The available declassified document from 1967 is called “Views on Trained Cats” (view here).
The document states that the training of the cats was a success, but there was no practical use found.
Still, it calls the project a “remarkable scientific achievement.”