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Acoustic Kitty: The CIA’s Plan to Spy… with Cats

The Cold War saw some wonderfully bizarre forms of espionage. From the CIA’s insectothopter, an unmanned aerial vehicle as small as a dragonfly, umbrellas that fired poisonous darts, shoes that contained cameras and lipstick with a 4.5 mm (0.1 inches) gun concealed inside to the wacky attempt by the Americans to read minds – a topic we’ve recently covered here on Megaprojects. But if you thought that last one sounded brilliantly outlandish, then you’re in for a treat with this video. 

The CIA’s plan to implant listening devices in cats, which would then find their way into Soviet embassies, or even the Kremlin via pre-taught acoustic tones given by its handler, was surely slightly over the line which separates the institutionalized and the sane – but it is 100% true. What I would have done to have been able to sit in on the meeting when some bright spark first brought up the idea for Project Acoustic Kitty, but alas it was all well before my time – and no doubt well outside of my security clearance. 

This story is so outrageous it feels as if it should be part of the Austin Powers movies but does show the level of ingenuity – or desperation, depending on how you want to look at it – that the two superpowers reached during the Cold War. 

Cold War 

What more can be said about the surreal, preposterous period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 known as the Cold War. It saw a monumental leap forward in terms of military technology and with this hardware, the Soviet Union and the Americans, along with its allies, went toe to toe in a global destruction game of cat and mouse. 

If you’re interested in the Cold War, we’ve done numerous videos on it, ranging from specific military hardware to the nuclear arms and its decline. But while nuclear weapons, gargantuan submarines and next-generation spy planes might have grabbed most of the headlines, the Cold War was often fought on a more micro level. 

The two sides were seemingly willing to do whatever it took to gain even the slightest upper hand and this led to some of the more unusual spying and military methods. The CIA’s Stargate Project, a topic we’ve covered already, spent around 20 years trying to use mind-reading to steal Soviet secrets, while the USSR set up the Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility in an attempt to essentially control the weather. It is worth pointing out that the USSR also heavily experimented with mind-reading and the Americans also did their best to tinker with the weather. No doubt if either side thought jumping off a cliff might bring a Cold War victory, you can bet the other would be right behind. It was that kind of war. 

Animals of War      

The idea of using animals in war certainly isn’t necessarily outrageous and has been done for thousands of years. Let’s not forget that humans have ridden horses into battle since around 900 BC and Cathargian general, Hannibal famously used elephants to smash his way down to Rome in 218 BC. Staying with the legendary Hannibal, after his defeat to the Romans, he resorted to launching poisonous snakes via catapults at enemy ships. He won that particular battle by the way. 

Rats were used to detect mines during the First World War and in World War II, 100 dead rats were stuffed with explosives by the British, who intended to leave them close to German boiler rooms. The hope was that the Germans would just shovel them into the boilers, which would then explode. Unfortunately, the Germans intercepted the first batch and nothing ever came of the concept, brilliantly named, Exploding Rat. 

Exploding Rat, in drawing.
Exploding Rat, schema.

Pigeons have long been used to carry messages and quite unbelievably – or not considering the topic of our video today – research was done during World War II to examine pigeon-based homing devices for missiles – but again, nothing ever came of this. Also in World War II, the U.S came remarkably close to using bats with small incendiary devices attached under what was Project X-Ray. So close in fact, the Americans managed to set fire to the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base in New Mexico, after the bats roosted under a fuel tank and incinerated the test range.      

Then we come to man’s best friend. Nowadays, dogs are probably the most likely animal to be seen on the battlefield, with one even included in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. They are used to detect explosives, search for survivors after major disasters but also as an excellent method of intimidation. If you’ve ever had a ferocious German Shepherd bearing down on you with a deranged homicidal glare in its eyes, you’ll probably understand why.  

I’m going to round out this section now, but believe me, I could go on. If you thought the use of cats during the Cold War was bizarre, history is littered with some of the most insane ideas for the use of animals for military purposes. But one animal that never seemed to come up, was cats. 

Cats     

When you think about their more fearsome cousins, tigers, lions, panthers, leopards etc, does the idea of cats being used in combat sound so ridiculous? Quite frankly yes – because they’re cats. No doubt the snootiest pet around, it’s hard to even get your cat to do what you want it to within the confines of your own home, let alone outside. 

Now, I know I’ve just said that the use of cats never seemed to come up, but there was at least one potential attempt to use them around two and half thousand years ago. You see, the Egyptians rather revered cats and harming them was firmly against their religious beliefs. With this in mind, during the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC, between the Achaemenid and Egyptian Empires, the Achaemenid forces were said to have deployed cats on the battlefield as a psychological weapon. If the legend is accurate, the Achaemenid soldiers approached the Egyptians with cats in their arms. Fearing that their arrows would kill the cats, the Egyptians held their fire and went on to lose the battle. There are plenty of question marks over the validity of this story, but what an image that would have been.   

The Skinner Box

Fast forward just over two and half thousand years and once again, cats were on the front line – well not really, but you know what I mean. Let me just start by saying that, unlike Project Stargate, information on Project Acoustic Kitty is far less abundant. That probably has a lot to do with the length of the project and its degree of success, but information was released in 2001 thanks to a freedom of information request. 

Burrhus Frederic Skinner,a t the Harvard Psychology
 Department, circa 1950
Burrhus Frederic Skinner,a t the Harvard Psychology
Department, circa 1950.By Silly rabbit is licensed
under CC-BY

The foundations for Project Acoustic Kitty really began with the work of Burrhus Frederick Skinner, an American Psychologist who did some pioneering work on how to shape an animal’s behaviour through reinforcement in a controlled environment.

The Skinner box, an experiment started in 1948 and also known as an operant conditioning chamber, was where an animal could be rewarded or punished for certain behaviours. Probably its most famous case was that of rats that were trained to press levers to receive food. Over time, Skinner found that by tailoring the reward system, he could elicit specific behaviour from the animal.  

While these ideas were a hell of a long way from inserting listening devices into, most agree that the CIA took particular interest in Skinner’s theories of just how far animals could be trained.  

Early Training 

In the mid-1960s, the CIA began researching whether similar methods could be used to train cats and dogs to do certain actions. In the early days, these were pretty basic actions, essentially just going to a certain area and returning. It seems as if quite early on the decision was made to focus on cats rather than dogs, and it appears this mainly came down to cost. 

A memo written in 1968 described how a ‘modified skinner box’ was used to train cats to search for a specific object using auditory signals – so one sound would mean go left, one go right and another to continue. As the cats improved, the size of the pen they were being trained in was gradually extended and eventually, external sounds, such as traffic noise, was added in an attempt to acclimatize the cats to the real world.  

Now, this all sounded great if you were training a cat to simply find a stuffed toy in a park, but in terms of espionage, it still had plenty of holes. After all, cats can’t exactly report back to the human on what they’ve seen or heard while out in the real world. The CIA’s response took Project Acoustic Kitty to an entirely different level. 

Listening In  

For the animal lovers out there, this is where things get a little squeamish. The CIA decided to implant not only a listening device, but a power source, a transmitter, and an antenna inside the cat. No doubt it would have been fairly easy to just place all that in a large collar, but they couldn’t take the chance of it being discovered. 

As you can probably imagine, this was far from straightforward. As any cat owner will tell you, their feline friends can be fussy little brats when they want to be, so the acoustic equipment needed to be completely undetectable to the cat. Then there was the question of where to install it all. If this is starting to sound a little Frankenstein-ish, well I’m afraid that’s exactly where we are going.    

Working with outside contractors, the CIA developed a 19 mm (¾ inch) transmitter along with an antenna that would reach from the cat’s skull down to its tail. In an ironic twist, the best place for the transmitter was found to be inside the cat’s ear canal. The batteries were another serious hurdle because they needed to be small enough that the cat or anybody else couldn’t detect them, but large enough to provide sufficient power to complete Felix’s mission. Remember, this was the 1960s and most batteries still often looked like large lunch boxes. 

Once the CIA felt like they had the hardware and the right locations inside the cat, a series of tests were carried out on dummies and with that out of the way, they turned their attention to living creatures. 

Bionic Cats

As I said earlier in the video, information on Project Acoustic Kitty is a little thin. We do know that at this point the CIA began inserting these listening devices inside the cats. How many cats were involved, and how many may have died in the process we just don’t know. 

It appears as if the transmitter was implanted directly at the base of the skull and the antenna, made of fine wire, was then woven through the cat’s fur all the way to the tail.  

In 2001, an ex CIA officer spoken to the Telegraph newspaper and summed up the process with a few blunt sentences, 

“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity,”

According to the heavily redacted report on the project, the first prototype was a grey and white female, though whether this was simply the first successful operation we aren’t sure. After the operation, which took one hour, the cat was placed in a recovery room. Apparently, she seemed to be OK, but when given some operational scenarios, her behaviour became “inconsistent” – according to the report. Sadly it doesn’t elaborate any further. 

It seems as if the obstacles surrounding using cats really became clear at this point and can be best summarized by this wonderfully worded segment from the report, 

The problem was that cats are not especially trainable–they don’t have the same deep-seated desire to please a human master that dogs do–and the agency’s robo-cat didn’t seem terribly interested in national security.

I mean, considering the CIA has the word intelligence smack bang in the middle, it seems unbelievable that this sort of issue didn’t come up earlier in the project. Maybe it did and the agency was still hoping something might come of it, who knows. It became clear that once you let a cat out into the real world, it essentially just ran off looking for food. But that being said, Project Acoustic Kitty did have one real-life mission. 

But before we get to it, let’s just be clear on exactly what the CIA was hoping to do. Once the cat was released, a handler, probably waiting in a nearby van, would transmit specific tones directly to the cat, which in theory would guide it to its target. Once there it would mill around lovingly, as cats do, with nobody none the wiser that the microphone inside the cat was transmitting their every word back to the waiting van. Once the mission was completed, the cat would return to the van, hopefully to a tin of succulent tuna. The stage was set for one of the most extraordinary acts of espionage during the entire Cold War.     

First Mission 

Unfortunately, we know fairly little about the first Acoustic Kitty mission, according to the report, the cat was tasked with eavesdropping on two people sitting on a park bench. Some say that these were two Soviet agents, but there’s no confirmation of that.  

The cat was released from a van and began making its way across the road towards the park – when bang! It was hit and killed by a taxi. You just couldn’t make up this story, could you? Apparently, agents quickly retrieved the body of the fallen agent, to save any uncomfortable questions being asked as to why the dead cat appeared to be half robotic. 

And that I’m afraid is that in terms of the slightly surreal Project Acoustic Kitty. As far as we know there were no further missions and the project was formally scrapped in 1967, with the final report giving the frankly paltry commendation that the Project showed that “cats can indeed be trained to move short distances.” 

In total, Project Acoustic Kitty cost roughly $20 million at the time – that’s about $160 million today – and yes those numbers are barely believable but somehow seem appropriate for this quite preposterous story. 

Project Acoustic Kitty must surely go down in history as one of the strangest attempts by either superpower to gain an advantage during the Cold War, but then again, I’m willing to bet that the projects we don’t know about were even more outlandish. The 1960s was a truly bizarre period of time and it doesn’t get much stranger than robotic-cat spies.  

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