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The CIA Plan to Use Cats as Spies (and the Taxi That Ruined It)

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© JASON REED/Reuters/Corbis

The Internet has been going nuts over the news that a dog was among the elite commandos who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed him. In response, Slate put together a slideshow of photoillustrations depicting the "Cats of War." Cats being used as agents of war by the government is no joke, though. Around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Central Intelligence Agency was doing anything and everything to get an edge on the Soviets.

Including turning to cats as agents of espionage.

The CIA figured the Soviets would never suspect a cat to be a U.S. spy, so the animal, implanted with audio recording or transmitting devices, could get close to foreign operatives unhindered and eavesdrop on them.

It’s an idea that almost forces the eyes to roll. Even people inside the agency didn’t think very highly of the plan. Victor Marchetti, a former special assistant to the agency’s director, told The Telegraph that the project was a failure, and a gruesome one at that. “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” Marchetti said. “They made a monstrosity.”

Project Acoustic Kitty

If only it were as easy as Marchetti makes it seem.

“Project Acoustic Kitty,” as it was called within the agency, actually took some five years to complete. No one seems to remember who first suggested spy cats, but once the Acoustic Kitty idea was fleshed out, it became a joint project between the CIA’s Office of Technical Services and Office of Research and Development.

The departments’ engineers and technicians had their work cut out for them. For the cats to be effective spies, the implants couldn’t affect any of their natural movements, lest the spies draw attention to themselves, or cause any irritation that would prompt the cats to try to dislodge the equipment by rubbing, clawing or licking it. All the components – a power source, a transmitter, a microphone and an antenna – would also need to withstand the cats’ internal temperature, humidity and chemistry.

Working with outside audio equipment contractors, the CIA built a 3/4-inch-long transmitter to embed at the base of the cat’s skull. Finding a place for the microphone was difficult at first, but the ear canal turned out to be prime, and seemingly obvious, real estate. The antenna was made from fine wire and woven, all the way to the tail, through the cat’s long fur to conceal it. The batteries also gave the techies a little trouble, since the cats’ size limited them to using only the smallest batteries and restricted the amount of time the cat would be able to record.

Tests of the equipment’s capabilities and performance were run first on dummies and then on live animals. During these tests, the cats were also monitored for their reactions to the equipment, to ensure their comfort and make sure their maneuverability and behavior were normal. After the agency weighed potential fallout from negative publicity against the value of successful feline spies, they proceeded to wire up their first fully functional agent.

According to Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, an adult gray-and-white female cat was selected as the first prototype. A small crowd of agents and techs who worked on the project watched the vet perform the equipment installation. One audio engineer, seeing the first incision and a trace of blood, had to sit down and regain his composure, but the operation went smoothly after that and took about an hour.


After the cat woke up from the anesthesia, she was put into a recovery room to recoup and undergo further testing. As she was run through several operational scenarios, her behavior became inconsistent. Her handlers began to worry they had made a huge mistake.


The successful experimental animals had, up to this point, been able to move short distances and target specific locations in a familiar environment. Outside the lab, there was just no herding the cat. She’d wander off when she got bored, distracted or hungry. The cat’s hunger issues were addressed with another operation. The additional surgical and training expenses are estimated to have brought the total cost up to $20 million, but Acoustic Kitty was finally ready to venture into the real world. (The CIA documents on the project are still partially redacted, so we don’t know if the first cat in the field was the female cat mentioned before or a different one.)

For the first field test, a CIA reconnaissance van was across the street from a park, where the marks were sitting on a bench. The cat hopped out of the van, started across the road, and was promptly hit and killed by a taxi.

One Small Step for Cats

After the cat’s death, a CIA operative returned to the accident site and collected the spy’s remains. They didn't want the Soviets to get their hands on the audio equipment.

Project Acoustic Kitty was completely abandoned in 1967. Deploying agents that the CIA had little to no control over was deemed a phenomenally bad idea. The project was declared an utter failure.

Documents relating to Acoustic Kitty were released in 2001 following a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archives, but remain partially censored. One report issued after the project was closed does offer a declassified pat on the back to the team that worked on the project. They were called “models for scientific pioneers” for proving that “cats can indeed be trained to move short distances.”

A true success for everyone but the cat.

For more on Acoustic Kitty, see Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytech’s and Emily Anthes’ blog, Wonderland.

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Animals
Why Your Cat Can't Roar, But Jungle Cats Can
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Your kitty may have the swagger of a mighty jungle cat, but it’s hard to take the tough cat act seriously once it opens its mouth. Unlike their roaring relatives, domestic cats have a high-pitched, mewling cry. However, they do purr—a trait that isn’t shared with lions, tigers, leopards, or jaguars, the four species of cats with loud, growling vocalizations.

In the video below, SciShow’s Hank Green explains the science behind why your beloved ball of fur can’t roar—and how it’s linked to their ferocious cousins' lack of purring ability.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love to Knead?
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If you're a cat lover, chances are your favorite feline has shown a penchant for kneading, and at some point has given you and/or a favorite piece of furniture a massage with his or her rhythmic paws. Colloquially called “making biscuits,” kneading is a common behavior among kittens and adult cats alike—but animal experts still aren't sure exactly why they do it.

Scientists have a few theories, some of which SciShow’s Hank Green outlined in this fascinating video. One theory is that your cat's kneading is an attempt to mark its territory—yes, even if that “territory” is you—with the scent glands in its paws. Another rationale is that kneading is a neotenic behavior, or a juvenile trait that sticks with cats into adulthood. Kittens knead their mother's belly to stimulate milk production—an act that’s nearly identical to that strange, Shiatsu-like practice it’s doing in your lap. (This could also explain why some adult cats also "suckle" the items they're kneading.)

Green does point out that domestic cats knead, whereas wild cats don’t, which raises the question: Why have only domestic felines retained this behavior? Green attributes this to the fact that house cats were selected over thousands of years for their friendlier, less aggressive traits, but says they've "probably also held on to some of their more social, baby-like behavior, just because it serves them well when they’re around people."

"I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but wildcats are not super social," Green jokes. "They don’t come up and cuddle, so much as try to eat your flesh. Felis silvestris, the ancestor of all domestic cats, is a solitary hunter that only socializes with members of its own species when it’s time to breed. So wildcats only developed social behaviors for two situations”—mating and caretaking behaviors between mother cats and their kittens.

“Unlike wild cats though, domesticated cats have a lot of social behaviors as adults, because they’re not wild loners anymore," Green adds. "They have us to cuddle with, con treats out of, and demand food from. So their innate tendencies for snuggling with mom and hitting on the lady cats are put to good use on us."

While occasionally painful or bothersome, kneading one’s owner is definitely a loving act on the part of the cat, a way of letting you know that it feels comfortable and safe with you. That said, don't sweat it if your cat isn’t big on the habit—or, conversely, worry that it kneads too much.

“Some cats are more needy and knead more than others,” Dr. Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of the syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor,” advised one anxious reader who reported that her kitty had taken to kneading the family dog. “This behavior is exacerbated when a cat is weaned from its mother too soon. It’s an anxious cat’s way of seeking contact comfort.”

If you’re not a fan of kneading, it's futile to train your cat to cease a perfectly natural behavior. Instead, consider investing in a pair of nail clippers—and when you’ve finally had enough, gently push the cat away and enjoy the fleeting freedom of an empty lap.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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