Birds Of A Feather Spy Together Journalist Tom Vanderbilt discusses the nonhuman operatives — from pigeons to house cats — deployed by the United States government during the Cold War. He wrote about the program recently for the Smithsonian magazine.
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Birds Of A Feather Spy Together

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Birds Of A Feather Spy Together

Birds Of A Feather Spy Together

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Humans have used animals to help us wage war for over 2,000 years. Let slip the dogs of war was not just an expression. For hundreds of years, attack dogs were on the front lines of battle. The conquistador's dogs used to terrify their enemies.

We stopped using animals as warriors a long time ago. But not long ago, the CIA hoped to draft some into the Cold War. That's right, that bird on a park bench behind you could be a spy.

Tom Vanderbilt wrote an article about animal CIA operatives for Smithsonian magazine. Tom, welcome.

TOM VANDERBILT: Great to be here.

RATH: So the piece is filled with these scenarios that sound almost too ridiculous to be true. But there is one then that was kind of my favorite. I know pigeons were used for communications in World War I. Can you talk about the plan to use pigeons to guide ballistic missiles?

VANDERBILT: Yes. This was a project that B.F. Skinner, the famous behavioral psychologist, he was working on a project with the armed services to basically install a set of pigeons inside the nose cone of a missile. And these pigeons 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.

RATH: It sounds sort of like the tic-tac-toe-playing chicken, and it turns out it's not too far removed from the tic-tac-toe-playing chicken.

VANDERBILT: Yeah. 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 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 and 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.

RATH: So this couple, they're training animals, and there was sort of a third wheel in their relationship. Can you tell us about Bob Bailey?

VANDERBILT: 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.

RATH: So the CIA, they were trying to train animals and they saw, you know, these people could train a pig to vacuum, they must be able to do something. What were some of the animals the CIA wanted to put to work?

VANDERBILT: 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 had an acoustic transmitter in its ear and another relay device implanted in its rib cage.

And as the story goes, this cat was meant to - 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 get a cat into his environment, it would sort of appear unnoticed. And the cat was trained to focus in on people's conversations, and it became sort of a bug.

RATH: Well, the conventional wisdom is that cats are untrainable, so Keller and Marion Breland had - had they conquered that?

VANDERBILT: Yeah. I mean, Bob Bailey has told me that no animal is untrainable. I mean, 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 don't seem to be particularly smart. But ravens, in his mind, are the geniuses of the bird world and kind of the Jason Bourne. They can be, you know, sort of operate on their own. They're very, very intelligent. They can lift things. This was part of another program that they trained ravens to basically deposit things in rooms in particular places, and those things could be listening devices, for example.

RATH: You said that you were limited in how you could report on this, given how much of it was classified. So, I mean, is it possible, for all we know, that there are ravens still out there on the CIA payroll?

VANDERBILT: There could be. Maybe they're waiting to be activated and they haven't come in from the cold, as it were. But, I mean, 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 how many problems there were in the program.

So I think, by and large, this was just an interesting activity for the CIA that, you know, showed some promise under certain conditions, but just had too many sort of wild-card variables that never was really 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 perhaps.

RATH: That's Tom Vanderbilt. He wrote an article about animal CIA operatives for this month's issue of Smithsonian magazine. Tom, thanks.

VANDERBILT: Thank you.

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