The CIA Performed A Controversial Experiment On Cats That’s Still Dividing People Today

The 1960s can be characterized by one word: eccentric. Even if the fashion, entertainment, and fads of the time weren’t considered weird then, they certainly are now…with a few obvious exceptions. By the end of the decade, ideas that were once considered “silly dreams” had been accomplished, from important technological advances to walking on the moon.

Throughout the decade, people thought outside the box…way outside, in some cases. Sometime in the ‘60s, the smartest people in the US decided that cats could work for the government, and the “why” and “how” behind the story are — you guessed it — downright eccentric.

The “why” is simple: Back then, Americans wanted to get an edge over the Soviet Union in any way they could. It was a “no such thing as a dumb idea” kind of time, and judging by one of their more eccentric ideas, they took that saying seriously.

Details about the CIA’s kookiest idea are scant, but what we know is mind-blowing: Sometime in the ‘60s, someone decided that a fool-proof way to infiltrate the Soviets was to train cats to be spies. If you think about it, it almost makes sense…

If you’re a Soviet leader holding a covert meeting, who are you going to be suspicious of: The random guy with an unconvincing Russian accent, or the skinny cat who happened to slink into the room? With this in mind, the idea started to grow.

The idea was turned into Project Acoustic Kitty, and before long it was being managed by the CIA. The idea needed all the manpower it could get: As it turned out, turning cats into spies wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

Simply training the cats to do what they wanted wasn’t going to cut it. Besides, what the CIA really wanted was for the felines to record top-secret Soviet meetings…and they couldn’t do that with a bulky recording device strapped to their backs.

This is where the story goes from kooky to bizarre: In order for the spy cats to record meetings undetected, they’d have to be implanted with recording equipment. For obvious reasons, this was a tall order for the scientists involved.

Bru Productions

They not only had to figure out a way to implant recording devices in the cats without impeding the cats’ movement, but they also had to contend with the cats’ body chemistry. The main barrier? Felines simply aren’t meant to have antennas.

ABC News

Victor Marchetti, an assistant to the CIA’s director at the time, described the implantation process as a cut and dry procedure — no pun intended. “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” he described. If only it were that easy.

Bru Productions

Marchetti later described the end result of the procedure using four simple words: “They made a monstrosity.” Unfortunately, turning cats into recording devices wasn’t as simple as two double-A batteries. It required hair-thin wires, a microphone, and high-tech equipment.

Young Frankenstein/20th Century Fox

The number one problem scientists found themselves facing should have been expected: The cats didn’t look normal after being turned into high-tech spies. Horribly, they were seemingly aware of the equipment lodged beneath their skin.

The cats would try to dislodge the equipment by licking, rubbing, and even clawing at their skin. There’s no information over how many animals — cats and non-cats included — died during the experimentation process, but eventually, the scientists thought they’d finally succeeded.

Smithsonian Magazine

The first “successful” Acoustic Kitty — or the cat that survived surgery — had a transmitter embedded at the base of its skull. It had a tiny microphone lodged into its ear canal, and an antenna woven all the way to its tail. 

After the first cat was implanted, they had to see how it moved in a non-controlled setting. Immediately, the CIA ran into a problem most pet owners would have been able to foresee from the beginning.

Once it was in a non-controlled setting, all bets were off. The cat wandered when it got bored, searched for food, and was easily distracted by noises and movement. Luckily (more like “unluckily”), the scientists were able to address at least one of these “issues.”

Another surgery — there’s very little information on what it entailed — seemed to “fix” the cat’s hunger problem. $20 million dollars on extra operations and training later, one of the cats was ready for its first real field test outdoors.

University of Pennsylvania

Across the street from a CIA reconnaissance van were two Soviet men sitting on a bench. The only thing separating the spy cat from its mission was a busy street…and this turned out to be the biggest problem of all.

The cat hopped out of the van, started across the street, and was promptly hit by a taxi. It was killed immediately, with the CIA operatives left to collect the remains in fear of the Soviets collecting the scattered equipment.

FailsCollection/YouTube

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that by 1967, Project Acoustic Kitty had been abandoned. As Jeffrey Richelson of the NSA Archive later said, “I’m not sure for how long after the operation the cat would have survived even if it hadn’t been run over.”

Though the project was seen as an utter failure at the time, the passage of time has revealed a few small but significant achievements Project Acoustic Kitty helped bring to life. For one, scientists learned that cats can, indeed, be trained to travel short distances…

Jun’s Kitchen/Boing Boing

The project also proved that small recording devices can be successfully concealed, which helped pave the way for future tiny spy equipment. Most of all, the project taught the CIA a very important lesson. Curiosity really can kill the cat — even one trained by the CIA.

William J. Clinton Library/Wikimedia Commons

Luckily for us (and the United States government,) there’s a more trainable breed out there: Dogs! Though dogs are often trained for years in order to protect their owners and even work for the police, not every pup can cut it…

Whether it’s their food, a favorite toy, or even themselves, dogs love to sniff things. And while the common wisdom among humans is that you can’t always do what you love for a living, the same surely can’t be said for man’s best friend.

Discover Magazine

All over the world, dogs and their keen senses of smell have become major tools in the field of law enforcement. These detection dogs are trained to recognize and seek out all manner of potentially dangerous contraband — illegal drugs, weapons, and even people.

People’s Daily Online

But even with all the necessary skills, not every dog is cut out for a job like this. Being a detection dog takes patience and self-control. In a way, these pooches have to behave more like humans than animals.

Wired

For Train, a Chesapeake Bay retriever rescue, trading in a life of abuse for one as a drug detection dog seemed like a perfect fit. But Train struggled to find his place at the training academy: he was far more interested in being a dog than a police canine.

Q13 Fox

“He failed out of narcotics school because he was too energetic,” said Train’s owner, Karen DeMatteo. “He was like a bull in a china closet.” But Train still had one heck of a nose on him, one that DeMatteo wasn’t ready to see go to waste.

Mongabay

At the time, DeMatteo, a conservation biologist, was looking to gather a team of dogs for a research project in the Argentine province of Misiones. With a sniffer like Train’s on her side, she’d surely find what she was looking for…

Newswise

Scat! Also known as poop, it actually plays a major role in the work of conservation biologists. Using droppings, researchers can gather valuable information about an animal, including their species, sex, and living environment.

WildFact

“Everybody leaves poop behind in the forest,” said DeMatteo. “You can figure out which habitats they like and which habitats they avoid.”

National Geographic

More specifically, DeMatteo and her team were looking to pinpoint the habitats of endangered animals such as jaguars and oncillas. However, this task is not an easy one if you can’t track down these creatures in the first place.

That’s where Train came in. DeMatteo hoped that the former drug-dog-in-training could use his highly sensitive nose to pick up scat scents and lead them to the elusive animals. And as soon as the team released Train onto the trail, they got their answer.

CNN

Though the dog’s excitability had hampered him at the academy, Train proved that he was more than capable of excelling at his new job. Not only was he quick to pick up the scents of the animals, but his high energy helped them collect results at breakneck speed.

Omaha World-Herald

The group spent the next year tracking animals through the Argentine wilderness, Train always happily bounding along at the head of the pack. By the time this first collection effort had wrapped, Train and his incredible nose had covered over 600 miles of forest.

CNN

“Train was just a machine,” DeMatteo recalled of the dog’s first year of sniffing scat. “We just switched him to use all that energy and search really big areas and find this poop for us.”

Omaha World-Herald

Using the data collected from the scat, DeMatteo and her team can pinpoint which forest areas should be prioritized in their conservation efforts. They can also determine if any of the animals are being affected by humans encroaching upon their land.

National Geographic

“Everywhere, people are expanding,” said DeMatteo. “We can try to figure out areas of potential overlap between humans and wildlife. We can identify areas that need more work, areas that are great corridors, or areas that are kind of lost to the cause.”

Earther

In the past, conservationists like DeMatteo would employ cameras and sensors to photograph and track animals. However, this method proved inefficient, as the creatures needed to actually pass in front of the cameras for researchers to document them.

High Country News

These cameras also proved to be a huge deterrent for the Argentine farmers on whose land some of the animals lived. Many of these landowners were hesitant to allow camera traps on their property, fearing that their privacy and livelihood were at risk.

Small Farmers Journal

But with Train and a border collie named April, the farmers were much more receptive to allowing DeMatteo and her team onto their land. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch two adorable pups frolic and play?

Omaha World-Herald

“They’re afraid you’re going to take their land or do something funny,” said DeMatteo, “and we explain that we just want to look for poop and find out where animals are moving. And they’re like, ‘Oh, cool, can I come?'”

Omaha World-Herald

Even though Train just celebrated his twelfth birthday, he and his one-of-a-kind nose show no signs of slowing down. Next, it’s off to Nebraska for DeMatteo and her dog, where their team will be tracking mountain lions.

Omaha World-Herald

Pups like Train are changing the world with their 9-5 careers. Piper, for instance, a Border Collie from Michigan, chases thousands of birds, foxes, and groundhogs off the runway at Cherry Capital Airport. Clad in noise-canceling headphones and protective goggles, he keeps planes and animals safe — a dream job for any dog.

2. You may not have considered it, but dogs can work in tech now, too. This dog helps develop video games, providing designers with realistic movements for digital puppers. We hope they copy his look too because we’d play anything to see this cutie.

3. Gigantic Saint Bernards were once bred in the Alps by monks to rescue people in the snowy mountains. They carried a barrel around their necks filled with brandy to keep people warm. These days, they prowl the mountains as more of a tradition, but you might still be able to enjoy a cocktail or two if you find one!

4. In today’s fight to protect bees, Bazz the Australian Labrador was a legend. While protected from head to toe to avoid any stings, Bazz smelled the bees and detected which ones were sick and thus a threat to the hive. He sniffed those hives like nobody’s beeswax.

5. Airport security pups have to smell all kinds of people and their belongings. Your unwashed clothes, your sweaty butt, and that Swiss cheese sandwich in your bag will all be checked by hard-working security snouts. Not to mention the drugs in your luggage…

6. Does this little guy look familiar? Uggie the Jack Russel was rejected by his first two owners but was rescued and became a star. He was famous for woofing and waggling in Water For Elephants, The Artist, and an episode of Key & Peele.

7. While Uggie was of course not ugly, neither was Handsome Dan! He was the mascot of none other than Yale University, attending sports games and other school events to raise the spirit. The original Dan appeared in 1889, and the gig has since been transferred from one bulldog to the next. What an honor!

8. It’s not just humans who need to protect their heads when they get down to work! This pooch who inspected holes on construction sites made sure he donned his hard hat every time he ventured forth. They don’t call him a very good boy for nothing!

9. Perhaps one of the oldest dog jobs is being a sled dog —they’ve been around since the 10th century! Getting through deep snow by car, train, or even horse is rough, so these fit pups help people get from A to B in places like Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. Mush, mush!

10. Just when you think you’ve seen it all at Walmart, an overweight corgi rings you up while you’re buying your weekly groceries. Better keep an eye on Courtney while she’s bagging you up — especially if you’re buying any puppy snacks!

11. Of course, there is also the most famous dog job: the K-9 position. Many tough canine officers help the police by searching for people, dogs, weapons, and bodies, by bringing down runners, and by keeping their human partners safe.

12. Dogs may not have any fins, but they usually love being in the water and are pretty good swimmers. For those who aren’t as skilled in the water, these pooches can come to your rescue and bring you back to shore. Being on the beach is not the worst way to spend the day for a dog!

13. A less physically exhausting gig for dogs is being a therapy animal. Playing with these pooches can help relieve stress and even treat anxiety or depression. As colleges become more focused on their students’ mental health, they bring these pets to the school during exam week. Now everybody can rest easy and ace those tests.

14. While these two might look like an odd duo, they actually get along like a house on fire! Why? Because this dog spends his days protecting this chicken and several others from any potential threats, like mean ol’ coyotes!

15. This tiny pup does a really big service for humanity. When humans or pets go missing, especially during a disaster, search and rescue pooches like this one make it their mission to find and save them. This cutie is definitely up for the job.

16. Similar to the K-9 police squad, there are also plenty of dogs in the military. They can smell bombs and landmines, track enemies, and protect wounded soldiers — or even drag them to safety.

17. The Durian isn’t a simple fruit to nosh on, and it isn’t easy on the nose either. Famous for its strong, stinky odor, it should probably not be sold by someone with a great sense of smell. Then again, dogs sniff butts too, so maybe they’re not so picky.

18. Some people get an electronic alarm system, and others get a guard dog. Most home-protecting dogs are big and strong, but these little guys might be just as intimidating. Have you ever had a Pomeranian snarl at you? Better stay out!

19. Some dogs only serve their owner, but it’s still a lot of work. They can guide the blind, warn the deaf, aid the disabled, avoid injury during seizures, or even calm down people with psychological disorders like PTSD or OCD. These pooches really are a human’s best friend.

20. Lil’ Grandpa was one of many, many office dogs residing in New York City. When he wasn’t accidentally peeing in the corner, he gave cuddles and morale boosts to everyone at the swanky media office he worked at.

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