The scene: Two men in a chilly Soviet apartment converse in whispers, careful to protect their plans from enemy ears. Little do they know, the benign-looking raven outside their window is not merely a city scavenger hunting for food, but a spy for the U.S. government.
Sound too ridiculous to be true? In fact, animal spies — and their very real missions — are the subject of journalist Tom Vanderbilt's article "The CIA's Animal Spies" in Smithsonian magazine this month.
On Sunday, Vanderbilt sat down with All Things Considered's Arun Rath to discuss the furry and feathered secret agents of the Cold War.
On the beginnings of animal espionage:
"B.F. Skinner, the famous behavioral psychologist, was working on a project with the armed services to basically install a set of pigeons inside the nosecone of a missile. And these were pigeons who were trained to basically peck at the image of a map because there would be a food reward, and this pecking would actually steer little motors in the missile and would deliver it to its target.
"There were a number of problems with the project and it never actually took off, but this was pretty cutting-edge research, in a way, during World War II."
On how these techniques were developed during the Cold War:
"There's a curious link here. There were a couple of graduate students working with Skinner at the time named Marion and Keller Breland. They were really interested in, as they called it, applied animal psychology — how could you turn these techniques into commercial enterprises.
"So they opened a theme park in Little Rock called the I.Q. Zoo, which had all sorts of characters: the educated hen, Priscilla the fastidious pig.
"Priscilla the fastidious pig appeared in a number of television commercials doing things like vacuuming, so they were really training animals to do all sorts of things.
"One day, the Brelands were called out to China Lake to the weapons research station out there, to do some research with the U.S. Navy's dolphin program — training dolphins to do things like locate submarines, or warn of enemy attack, things like that.
"And this was run by Bob Bailey, who was kind of an animal behaviorist of his own. And he was convinced to come work with the Brelands at the I.Q. Zoo."
On some of the animal "spies" used by the CIA:
"There were a number of different programs that were tried. One was the so-called 'Squab Squad.' It basically involved a flock of pigeons that would fly ahead of your troop formation, and if they detected the presence of an enemy battalion they would all basically land. And this would be the signal to give away that there were enemy troops ahead.
"Unfortunately, there were a few problems with that. I mean, sometimes pigeons would just sort of fly away and they wouldn't come back, or you weren't quite sure if they'd been shot down.
"Another favorite program was called 'Acoustic Kitty,' and this was a cat [that] had an acoustic transmitter in its ear and another relay device implanted in its ribcage.
"And as the story goes ... there was a Middle Eastern potentate who they were trying to get some intelligence on and he was a real cat enthusiast, so the thought was if they could sort of get a cat into his environment it would appear unnoticed. And the cat was trained to sort of focus in on people's conversations, so it became sort of a bug."
On what makes a good animal operative:
"Bob Bailey has told me that no animal is untrainable. Certain animals are better than others. He, for example, thinks that pigeons aren't that clever. Owls are not very smart either, despite the stereotype of the wise owl. They may be wise, but they aren't particularly smart.
"Ravens, in his mind, are the geniuses of the bird world and kind of the Jason Bourne. They can sort of operate on their own. They're very, very intelligent. They can lift things, [and] this was part of another program. They trained ravens to basically deposit things in rooms in particular places, and those things could be listening devices, for example."
On whether there are still "rogue" agents out there:
"[Laughs] There could be. Waiting to be activated and they haven't come in from the cold, as it were.
"Really, one of the only documents that's ever been released has the wonderful title, 'Views on Trained Cats,' and most of it is actually blacked out. But it hints at the problems there were within the program.
"I think, by and large, this was just an interesting activity for the CIA that showed some promise under certain conditions, but just had too many wildcard variables and was never quite as implemented as we might think.
"But because we don't really know, yes it's possible there are still rogue ravens flittering around Eastern Europe."