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Animals in espionage

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Spy organisations have occasionally attempted to train animals for espionage operations, with varying results, and from time to time various creatures have been accused of carrying out covert surveillance or more sinister activities. It is not a concern of the past; an Israeli vulture was apprehended and accused of espionage by Saudi Arabia. Egypt also accuses Israeli Mossad of releasing one or more sharks in an area in which tourists swim.[1]

Perhaps the most famous animal 'spy' was the carrier pigeon, which was famously used to carry secret messages past enemy lines. Many pigeons saw action in World War I, although British forces engaged in communications jamming using shotguns. In the Second World War, the behaviourist B.F. Skinner proposed that pigeons could also be used as kamikazes, piloting missiles into Japanese ships. The U.S. Navy quickly rejected the idea, but 'Project Pigeon' remained an option for several more years, as part of an 'organic control' project that also sought to employ bats as wartime suicide bombers.[2]

In the 1960s, the CIA procured a cat which they hoped would be able to listen in on conversations behind the Iron Curtain. Named 'Atomic Kitty', the cat was surgically altered to contain electronic equipment, but the first field test ended in disaster when the would-be agent was run over by a taxi. The experiment cost the CIA over $10 million, and no further cats were recruited.[3]

The British security services of the 1970s hit on a plan to use gerbils to help identify foreign spies. The gerbils would be brought in at the interrogation stage, and were tasked with sniffing out heightened levels of adrenalin in a suspect, which might in turn indicate the person was lying. Early tests, however, came to nothing when MI5 discovered that the gerbils could not distinguish between terrorists and people experiencing anxiety about flying.[4] More advanced technology helped U.S. researchers explore the feasibility of 'robo'-rats trained to respond to signals, but at present, none of these rodents are believed to have been deployed on actual missions.[5]

Other animals have allegedly been employed for more deadly purposes. Throughout the Cold War and since, the CIA is thought to have been employing a pod of dolphins trained to eliminate enemy divers using toxic 'dart guns'. Dolphins are also used to detect mines in unfriendly waters. As yet, no details are available on whether CIA-trained dolphins have ever engaged with hostile forces, and if so, whether fatalities were sustained on either side.[6]

Animals accused of spying

As animals are often small, fast, or dangerous, it is not uncommon for some to be accused of espionage from time to time, and sometimes rather far-fetched tales emerge. According to folklore, in the early nineteenth century a chimpanzee was tried and hanged for spying, when the local inhabitants of Hartlepool, England, came to believe that the simian - actually a ship's mascot, an dressed appropriately - was a French sailor. This being the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the chimp stood little chance of a fair hearing, and was unable to mount a robust defence of his reputation.[7] Even in the twenty-first century, serious allegations have been levelled at animals as diverse as pigeons, sharks, a vulture, and even squirrels.

In 2010, Indian authorities detained a pigeon that was alleged to be working for Pakistan. The bird was kept under armed guard and evidence was gathered, including a ring around its foot.[8]

More recently, Saudi Arabia captured a Griffon Vulture tagged with a GPS device, arguing that the creature had been gathering data for Israel. Griffon Vultures, which are native to the Golan Heights, are understood to be tracked by researchers at Tel-Aviv University for conservation purposes, and the Israeli Park and Nature Authority expressed concern for the welfare of the creature.[9] The previous year, Egyptian officials implied that the Israeli secret service, Mossad, may have masterminded a plot to drive sharks into the waters off Sharm el-Sheikh, resulting in one death and several injuries. Israel denied the allegation.[10]

In 2007, Iranian authorities claimed to have captured several squirrels in a border area that were equipped with electronic devices. Few details emerged, and the fate of these animals, if they existed, remains unclear.[11]


  1. "Saudi Arabia 'nabbed Israeli-tagged vulture for being Mossad spy'", Haaretz, 4 January 2011
  2. 'Top secret WWII bat and bird bomber program'. 12th June 2006.
  3. Daily Telegraph: 'CIA recruited cat to bug Russians'. 4th November 2001.
  4. BBC: 'MI5 records reveal gerbil spycatcher plan'. 30th June 2001.
  5. National Geographic News: 'Scientists "drive" rats by remote control'. 1st May 2002.
  6. Guardian: 'Armed and dangerous - Flipper the firing dolphin let loose by Katrina'. 25th September 2005.
  7. This is Hartlepool: 'The Hartlepool monkey, who hung the monkey?'.
  8. Daily Telegraph: 'Pigeon held in India on suspicion of spying for Pakistan'. 28th May 2010.
  9. BBC: 'Saudi Arabia 'detains' Israeli vulture for spying'. 5th January 2011.
  10. BBC: 'Shark attacks not linked to Mossad says Israel'. 7th December 2010.
  11. MSN World Blog: 'Iran's spying squirrels?'. 20th July 2007.