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

© 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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Martin Wittfooth
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Art
The Cat Art Show Is Coming Back to Los Angeles in June
Martin Wittfooth
Martin Wittfooth

After dazzling cat and art lovers alike in 2014 and again in 2016, the Cat Art Show is ready to land in Los Angeles for a third time. The June exhibition, dubbed Cat Art Show 3: The Sequel Returns Again, will feature feline-centric works from such artists as Mark Ryden, Ellen von Unwerth, and Marion Peck.

Like past shows, this one will explore cats through a variety of themes and media. “The enigmatic feline has been a source of artistic inspiration for thousands of years,” the show's creator and curator Susan Michals said in a press release. “One moment they can be a best friend, the next, an antagonist. They are the perfect subject matter, and works of art, all by themselves.”

While some artists have chosen straightforward interpretations of the starring subject, others are using cats as a springboard into topics like gender, politics, and social media. The sculpture, paintings, and photographs on display will be available to purchase, with prices ranging from $300 to $150,000.

Over 9000 visitors are expected to stop into the Think Tank Gallery in Los Angeles during the show's run from June 14 to June 24. Tickets to the show normally cost $5, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting a cat charity, and admission will be free for everyone on Wednesday, June 20. Check out a few of the works below.

Man in Garfield mask holding cat.
Tiffany Sage

Painting of kitten.
Brandi Milne

Art work of cat in tree.
Kathy Taselitz

Painting of white cat.
Rose Freymuth-Frazier

A cat with no eyes.
Rich Hardcastle

Painting of a cat on a stool.
Vanessa Stockard

Sculpture of pink cat.
Scott Hove

Painting of cat.
Yael Hoenig
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iStock
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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
iStock
iStock

As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
iStock

If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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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