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

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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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Live Smarter
8 Tricks to Help Your Cat and Dog to Get Along
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When people aren’t debating whether cats or dogs are more intelligent, they’re equating them as mortal foes. That’s a stereotype that both cat expert Jackson Galaxy, host of the Animal Planet show My Cat From Hell, and certified dog trainer Zoe Sandor want to break.

Typically, cats are aloof and easily startled, while dogs are gregarious and territorial. This doesn't mean, however, that they can't share the same space—they're just going to need your help. “If cats and dogs are brought up together in a positive, loving, encouraging environment, they’re going to be friends,” Galaxy tells Mental Floss. “Or at the very least, they’ll tolerate each other.”

The duo has teamed up to host a new Animal Planet series, Cat vs. Dog, which airs on Saturdays at 10 p.m. The show chronicles their efforts to help pet owners establish long-lasting peace—if not perfect harmony—among cats and dogs. (Yes, it’s possible.) Gleaned from both TV and off-camera experiences, here are eight tips Galaxy and Sandor say will help improve household relations between Fido and Fluffy.

1. TAKE PERSONALITY—NOT BREED—INTO ACCOUNT.

Contrary to popular belief, certain breeds of cats and dogs don't typically get along better than others. According to Galaxy and Sandor, it’s more important to take their personalities and energy levels into account. If a dog is aggressive and territorial, it won’t be a good fit in a household with a skittish cat. In contrast, an aging dog would hate sharing his space with a rambunctious kitten.

If two animals don’t end up being a personality match, have a backup plan, or consider setting up a household arrangement that keeps them separated for the long term. And if you’re adopting a pet, do your homework and ask its previous owners or shelter if it’s lived with other animals before, or gets along with them.

2. TRAIN YOUR DOG.

To set your dog up for success with cats, teach it to control its impulses, Sandor says. Does it leap across the kitchen when someone drops a cookie, or go on high alert when it sees a squeaky toy? If so, it probably won’t be great with cats right off the bat, since it will likely jump up whenever it spots a feline.

Hold off Fido's face time with Fluffy until the former is trained to stay put. And even then, keep a leash handy during the first several cat-dog meetings.

3. GIVE A CAT ITS OWN TERRITORY BEFORE IT MEETS A DOG.

Cats need a protected space—a “base camp” of sorts—that’s just theirs, Galaxy says. Make this refuge off-limits to the dog, but create safe spaces around the house, too. This way, the cat can confidently navigate shared territory without trouble from its canine sibling.

Since cats are natural climbers, Galaxy recommends taking advantage of your home’s vertical space. Buy tall cat trees, install shelves, or place a cat bed atop a bookcase. This allows your cat to observe the dog from a safe distance, or cross a room without touching the floor.

And while you’re at it, keep dogs away from the litter box. Cats should feel safe while doing their business, plus dogs sometimes (ew) like to snack on cat feces, a bad habit that can cause your pooch to contract intestinal parasites. These worms can cause a slew of health problems, including vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia.

Baby gates work in a pinch, but since some dogs are escape artists, prepare for worst-case scenarios by keeping the litter box uncovered and in an open space. That way, the cat won’t be cornered and trapped mid-squat.

4. EXERCISE YOUR DOG'S BODY AND MIND.

“People exercise their dogs probably 20 percent of what they should really be doing,” Sandor says. “It’s really important that their energy is released somewhere else so that they have the ability to slow down their brains and really control themselves when they’re around kitties.”

Dogs also need lots of stimulation. Receiving it in a controlled manner makes them less likely to satisfy it by, say, chasing a cat. For this, Sandor recommends toys, herding-type activities, lure coursing, and high-intensity trick training.

“Instead of just taking a walk, stop and do a sit five times on every block,” she says. “And do direction changes three times on every block, or speed changes two times. It’s about unleashing their herding instincts and prey drive in an appropriate way.”

If you don’t have time for any of these activities, Zoe recommends hiring a dog walker, or enrolling in doggy daycare.

5. LET CATS AND DOGS FOLLOW THEIR NOSES.

In Galaxy's new book, Total Cat Mojo, he says it’s a smart idea to let cats and dogs sniff each other’s bedding and toys before a face-to-face introduction. This way, they can satisfy their curiosity and avoid potential turf battles.

6. PLAN THE FIRST CAT/DOG MEETING CAREFULLY.

Just like humans, cats and dogs have just one good chance to make a great first impression. Luckily, they both love food, which might ultimately help them love each other.

Schedule the first cat-dog meeting during mealtime, but keep the dog on a leash and both animals on opposite sides of a closed door. They won’t see each other, but they will smell each other while chowing down on their respective foods. They’ll begin to associate this smell with food, thus “making it a good thing,” Galaxy says.

Do this every mealtime for several weeks, before slowly introducing visual simulation. Continue feeding the cat and dog separately, but on either side of a dog gate or screen, before finally removing it all together. By this point, “they’re eating side-by-side, pretty much ignoring each other,” Galaxy says. For safety’s sake, continue keeping the dog on a leash until you’re confident it’s safe to take it off (and even then, exercise caution).

7. KEEP THEIR FOOD AND TOYS SEPARATE.

After you've successfully ingratiated the cat and dog using feeding exercises, keep their food bowls separate. “A cat will walk up to the dog bowl—either while the dog’s eating, or in the vicinity—and try to eat out of it,” Galaxy says. “The dog just goes to town on them. You can’t assume that your dog isn’t food-protective or resource-protective.”

To prevent these disastrous mealtime encounters, schedule regular mealtimes for your pets (no free feeding!) and place the bowls in separate areas of the house, or the cat’s dish up on a table or another high spot.

Also, keep a close eye on the cat’s toys—competition over toys can also prompt fighting. “Dogs tend to get really into catnip,” Galaxy says. “My dog loves catnip a whole lot more than my cats do.”

8. CONSIDER RAISING A DOG AND CAT TOGETHER (IF YOU CAN).

Socializing these animals at a young age can be easier than introducing them as adults—pups are easily trainable “sponges” that soak up new information and situations, Sandor says. Plus, dogs are less confident and smaller at this stage in life, allowing the cat to “assume its rightful position at the top of the hierarchy,” she adds.

Remain watchful, though, to ensure everything goes smoothly—especially when the dog hits its rambunctious “teenage” stage before becoming a full-grown dog.

Cat vs. Dog Airs on Saturdays at 10 p.m. on Animal Planet

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Animals
Los Angeles's Top Architects Design Pet Shelters to Benefit Homeless Cats
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Los Angeles design firms Abramson Teiger Architects, d3architecture, and KnowHow Shop are known for producing some of the city's most distinct examples of architecture. But for this year’s “Giving Shelter” event in Culver City, local architects were tasked with designing structures on a much smaller scale than what they’re used to. Each piece auctioned off at the fundraiser was built with feline inhabitants in mind, and the proceeds from the night went to benefit homeless cats in the area.

L.A. is home to one of the largest stray cat populations in the country, with between 1 and 3 million cats living on the streets. Each year, architects involved with the group Architects for Animals design innovative shelters to raise money for FixNation, a nonprofit organization that spays and neuters the city's homeless cats. This year, the cat homes that were showcased included bird houses, AC vents, and a giant ball of yarn.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Shelter for a cat.

Anyone who’s familiar with Architects for Animals shouldn’t be surprised by the creativity of this year’s entries. Last year’s Giving Shelter event included a Brutalist interpretation of a classic tête-à-tête seat.

All images courtesy of MeghanBobPhotography / Architects for Animals

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