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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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Stringer, AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
Ranthambhore National Park Is Helping India's Famous Tigers Thrive
Stringer, AFP/Getty Images
Stringer, AFP/Getty Images

Forty-four years ago, India launched its “Protect Tiger” initiative and declared the Bengal tiger the national animal. At the time, the population had dwindled to just 268 cats due to poaching and habitat loss. The species is in much better shape today: India’s tiger population has increased by 1300 percent in the past four decades, and that’s thanks in part to tiger sanctuaries like Ranthambhore National Park.

According to Lonely Planet, Ranthambhore National Park may be the most famous tiger park in India. It’s certainly one of the most successful: The site has provided a secure home for generations of tigers since it was founded on the former hunting grounds of a Maharaja in 1955. While the overall tiger population in India is still threatened by poaching, habitat loss, and human-tiger conflict, Ranthambhore claims 67 tigers inside its borders—the highest-ever number for the park, according to the latest census. And with cubs making up 26 of those cats, the park has a promising future ahead of it.

Tigers within the park borders are so abundant that officials at Ranthambhore plan to share their good fortune. Cats from the park will be sent to the neighboring Sariska National Park, which was completely devoid of tigers in 2005 due to a poaching crisis. There are 13 tigers living in the park today, and the transplants from Ranthambhore will hopefully strengthen the population.

Ranthambhore National Park is open to tourists from October 1 to June 30. If you’re unable to book a tour, you can check out the photos below to see the park’s famous residents.

Tiger walking behind car.
Koshy Koshy, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Tiger laying on dirt path.

Tiger in the woods.
Himangini Rathore Hooja, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tiger laying down and yawning.
Aditya Singh, AFP/Getty Images

Tiger looking out from tall grass.
Stephen Jaffe, AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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Animal Planet
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entertainment
15 Fun Facts About Puppy Bowl
Animal Planet
Animal Planet

The Super Bowl can keep its 111.9 million viewers and $5 million ad buys. Because the Puppy Bowl, which celebrates its 14th year this Sunday on Animal Planet, has got something much better: puppies! Ninety of them—and all of them adoptable. There are kittens, too (they provide the halftime entertainment), and Meep the tweeting African Gray Parrot (follow him at @MeepTheBird) plus a host of other species.

With the help of Dan Schachner, who’ll be donning the black and white stripes for his seventh go as the "Rufferee," we’ve uncovered 15 things you might not have known about Puppy Bowl.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE YULE LOG.

Yes, that long-running holiday television special that featured nothing more than the image of a log burning in a fireplace with Christmas music playing in the background is what inspired the Puppy Bowl. And its broadcast debut, back in 2005, was a much less elaborate affair, comprised mainly of copious amounts of footage of puppies playing. But it did feature the game’s very first Unsportsmanlike Delay of Game penalty, issued to a pup named Riley for, in the announcer’s words, deciding to “use the field as his own personal bathroom.” (See the video above.)

2. SAFETY IS THE TOP PRIORITY.

Puppies will be puppies. And puppies don’t always play fair. In addition to a veterinarian, who is on the set throughout the program’s production, representatives from the Humane Society and each of the shelters whose dogs are being featured are on hand to ensure the safety of the competitors. This includes giving the puppies a break from the lights, camera and action every 30 minutes. For the 2018 event, 90 puppies from a record 58 shelters and rescue groups from 24 states and Puerto Rico will be represented.

3. GAME DAY OCCURS IN OCTOBER.

JPaw and Lila compete in Puppy Bowl XIV
Animal Planet

Puppy Bowl is not a live broadcast. It’s shot over the course of two days in October. “That element takes people aback,” admits Schachner. But the reason why is totally understandable. “It’s three months of preparation because it’s two full days of shooting,” continues Schachner. “Plus it’s 21 cameras on the field. So that’s a lot of footage to edit and turn into a two-hour show.”

4. PEANUT BUTTER IS THE PRODUCTION TEAM'S BEST FRIEND.

Just how does the production team manage to get all those adorable up-close images? Easy: Peanut butter. Of the dozens of cameras used to capture all the on-field action, one is mounted beneath a glass-bottom water bowl while others are hidden in the dogs’ chew toys, but not before they’re smeared with peanut butter to attract the competing canines.

5. PUPPY BOWL VIII FEATURED A DOUBLE TOUCHDOWN.

“We’re very open-minded as far as our rules go,” says Schachner, who notes that in Puppy Bowl VIII, “we had a simultaneous touchdown and that had never happened before. Two puppies dragged two chew toys into the end zone at the same exact time. I didn’t know what to do, so I talked to our control room. We did an instant replay and determined that it counted. Each puppy was then awarded one touchdown point.”

6. THE CHEERLEADERS ARE ALWAYS CHANGING.

In 2010, the Puppy Bowl added a bit of ra-ra-ra to the production when it included a team of bunny cheerleaders. In 2011, chickens were the animals cheering on the sidelines. In 2012, the chicks were replaced by a Piggy Pep Squad, followed by a team of hedgehogs in 2013, a group of peppy penguins direct from the Columbus Zoo in 2014, five Nigerian dwarf goats in 2015, "five big-haired silkie chickens" in 2016, and a squad of rescue rabbits and guinea pigs in 2017. For 2018, the game will feature what Animal Planet is calling "an adorable blended bunch of baby barnyard cheerleaders," which will include ducklings, piglets, and baby bunnies.

7. LACK OF ENERGY IS CAUSE FOR DISQUALIFICATION.

Ana competes in Puppy Bowl XIV
Animal Planet

“We’ve had penalties when puppies are too rambunctious, but also when they’re too lazy,” says Schachner of the behaviors that can disqualify a pup from competition. “That’s called ‘illegal napping’ or ‘excessive napping.’”

8. “PANCAKING” IS ALSO NOT ALLOWED.

When asked about the oddest penalty he has ever had to heap on a competitor, Schachner recalls “one puppy that was literally flattening other puppies. Puppies will shove and bite and sniff and tackle. But there was one puppy that was literally jumping up and landing on the backs of the other puppies. So we made up a foul then called ‘pancaking.’ We sent her back 15 yards.”

9. PUPPY BOWL LANDED AN OLYMPIC SPINOFF.

In 2008, a Puppy Bowl spinoff—Puppy Games—aired opposite the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. While the setup was the same as Puppy Bowl, the competitions were all new and included swimming, boxing, soccer, and gymnastics events.

10. THERE’S A LOT MORE POOP THAT YOU DON’T SEE.

Cleaning up after the game’s not-always-housebroken competitors is part of the ref’s job. But Schachner says that the biggest misconception about his role is that “I’m picking up poop and pee all the time. [People] forget that there’s an amazing grounds crew here on staff. They’re like little elves who come in and magically erase all the pet poop that’s left on the field so that when the game is actually playing and those cameras are rolling, you’re not going to see too many fouls. You’ll see a couple, but you’re not going to see too much of puppies doing what comes naturally to them!”

11. YES THE PUPPIES ARE ADOPTABLE—BUT GOOD LUCK ADOPTING ONE.

Barry and Olympia compete in Puppy Bowl XIV
Animal Planet

Yes, all of Puppy Bowl’s competitors are shelter dogs. (So are the cats.) But because of the show’s October production versus February airing, “by the time the Puppy Bowl actually airs, most of these puppies have already found their forever homes,” says Schachner. “We encourage everyone to go on to AnimalPlanet.com during the airing and if you see a puppy that you fall in love with, check him out. They may be adoptable. And if not that shelter will have other puppies who are equally adorable, maybe even from the same litter.”

12. IT’S NO LONGER THE ONLY ANIMAL "BOWL."

The Puppy Bowl’s popularity has not gone unnoticed by other networks. Hallmark Channel will cater to the cat crowd with the fifth edition of its Kitten Bowl.

13. A RECORD NUMBER OF VIEWERS TUNED IN FOR THE 2014 EVENT.

Peanut and Hinesville compete in Puppy Bowl XIV
Animal Planet

Puppy Bowl X scored huge ratings; a total of 13.5 million tuned in throughout the 12-hour canine extravaganza, making Puppy Bowl the most watched cable program during 2014's Super Bowl Sunday and the second most watched show in all of television that night (second only to some football game playing on Fox). Though the total number of viewers dipped in 2016, Puppy Bowl bounced back in 2017, which ended up being its second most-watched Puppy Bowl ever.

14. SEVERAL SPECIAL NEEDS PUPS WILL BE COMPETING. 

In a Puppy Bowl first, three of last year's competitors were pups with disabilities. Even more special needs pups will be participating in this year's Big Game: There's Ryder, a visually impaired Husky; Chance, a deaf Dalmatian; Moonshine, a sight-impaired and deaf Border Collie; and Luna, a Pomeranian mix with a cleft palate. 

15. THIS YEAR'S PUPPY BOWL WILL FEATURE A RESCUE SLOTH.

After seven years as the Puppy Bowl's referee, Schachner is a pro. But that hasn't stopped him from enlisting some help this year when it comes to calling penalties and celebrating touchdowns. Assisting him on the field for 2018 will be a special guest: Shirley the rescue sloth.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2014.

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