History Stories

Are cats the purrfect spies? Turns out, not so much.

The most famous kitty in spy history is probably the white Persian of James Bond flicks. The image of a faceless villain stroking the cat in the early 1960s films is now a meme (see: Inspector Gadget, Austin Powers). Lesser known is the cat whom, during the same decade, the CIA attempted to turn into a spy.

“Operation Acoustic Kitty” was a secret plan to turn cats into portable spying devices. However, the CIA only ever produced one Acoustic Kitty because it abandoned the project after a test with this cat went horribly wrong.

The Acoustic Kitty was a sort of feline-android hybrid—a cyborg cat. A surgeon implanted a microphone in its ear and a radio transmitter at the base of its skull. The surgeon also wove an antenna into the cat’s fur, writes science journalist Emily Anthes in Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.

CIA operatives hoped they could train the cat to sit near foreign officials. That way, the cat could secretly transmit their private conversations to CIA operatives.

“For its first official test, CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench,” Anthes writes. “Instead, the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi”—not the outcome they were expecting.

Operation Acoustic Kitty

A detail of the report on Operation Acoustic Kitty. (Credit: The Central Intelligence Agency)

“The problem was that cats are not especially trainable,” she writes. In a heavily redacted memo, the CIA concluded: “Our final examination of trained cats…convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”

Still, this does not mean the U.S. government’s days of animal-engineering were over. In 2006, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, asked scientists to create cyborg insects (yes, insects are animals).

With DARPA’s support, researchers at the University of California Berkeley successfully created a cyborg beetle whose movements they could remotely control. They reported their results in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience in October 2009.

“Berkeley scientists appear to have demonstrated an impressive degree of control over their insect’s flight; they report being able to use an implant for neural stimulation of the beetle’s brain to start, stop, and control the insect in flight,” reported Wired the month these findings came out. “They could even command turns by stimulating the basalar muscles.”

The idea of secret spy bugs may sound a little terrifying, especially for anyone who saw the robot bees episode of Black Mirror (on a related note, Walmart filed a patent for robo bees this spring). But rest assured that it’s probably still safe to have private conversations around cats. Their notoriously smug, indifferent attitudes will likely keep protecting them from CIA conscription.

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