Covert Creatures: The History of Spy Animals


    When we discuss spies and espionage, it is normal to envision a James Bond figure or a tall man in a trench coat. What you may not picture is a cute kitten or a bird trying to steal your lunch. The unsuspecting nature of animals may, however, make them an excellent candidate to spy on your enemy. Throughout history, the military has used spy animals in tasks. Horses served as a transportation method on the battlefield, whilst dogs have been extremely talented at sniffing out explosive devices. Many states frequently used pigeons and dolphins during the Cold War to gather information. The future of creature espionage may be even more bizarre, with scientists developing robo-insects as drones.

    1.0 Pigeons: Spy Animals in the Sky

    Agencies have used pigeons as a reconnaissance tool since World War I (source). They equipped the birds with tiny cameras to provide satellite-like surveillance when they flew over enemy territory. Their agility and speed made them excellent carriers of surveillance equipment. Moreover, pigeons can find their way back home from anywhere you drop them (source). This boomerang-effect means that the intelligence operative can be confident that they will receive the data they collect. 

    During the Cold War, agencies also used birds to obtain information about the Soviet Union. The CIA, for example, ran an extensive pigeon-spy programme during this period. Trainers taught the birds how to go on missions and take pictures of locations inside the Soviet Union (source). They named the Operation Tacana, which took place in the 1970s. The operation was very successful in gathering information about Soviet facilities. The British Intelligence Committee also had a “Pigeons Sub-Committee” which operated during this time. However, this committee did not carry out any operations (that we know of) (source).

    A Replica of a pigeon camera held in the International Spy Museum. Credit to: International Spy Museum

    2.0 Modern Spy Birds

    Other bird spies are clearly not a thing of the past. 

    In 2013, China released a flock of drone doves carrying a high-definition camera and a GPS signal (source). The drones, designed to look and fly like real doves, can fly for 30 minutes to gather information for the Chinese government. In this length of time, they can cover approximately 20km in distance.

    Recently, police in Eastern India caught a pigeon with camera equipment attached (source). An investigation is underway to determine whether this is a case of espionage. People noted a similar sighting in 2020, close to India’s border with Pakistan (source). According to the report, the bird had a “coded message” attached to it, but security forces could not confirm if it was being used for spying.

    And if drones designed to look like birds aren’t realistic enough, a company is currently working on projects to make taxidermy birds into drones (source). Scientists would equip the dead birds with the mechanisms to become a drone which still flaps its wings and motions like a living bird. This kind of technology would be extremely beneficial to covert missions and the birds in the sky would likely go undetected. The drones will then be able to gather live satellite footage and videos of movement on the ground. It appears the original pigeon spies were an inspiration for many…

    3.0. Clandestine Cats: Prowling Spy Animals

    In the 1960s, the CIA developed an operation to use cats as listening devices to gain information from the Soviet embassy in Washington (source). The project, titled ‘Operation Acoustic Kitty’, involved implanting a microphone into the cat’s ear and a radio transmitter at the base of its skull (source). Research into the project took 5 years to complete because of the intricacies of fitting a cat with audio equipment. They embedded a 4 inch transmitter into the skull with the antenna being woven all the way to the tail (source). They estimate that all the surgical and training expenses of this project cost the CIA $20 million.

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

    The issue with this project, however, is that cats are not easily trained. Unlike dogs, cats do not have a pack mentality and are therefore less likely to be obedient to a leader (source). The CIA, however, was relying on the curious nature of cats. During a test trial of Operation Acoustic Kitty, they placed the cat in a park with the task of eavesdropping on the conversation between two men who were sitting on a bench nearby. However, the cat wandered away and a passing car ‘neutralised’ it, promptly ending the operation. They realised the impracticality of the project and called it off in 1967 (source).

    4.0 Underwater Spy Animals: Dolphins

    Several states have used dolphins as spy animals to protect submarine fleets, locate underwater mines, and rescue surveillance equipment. The sea creatures have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing, making them superb at locating dangerous objects underwater (source). They also possess excellent intelligence and social skills that make them effectively trainable to carry out the desired task.

    During the 1960s, the Soviet Union trained dolphins to search for underwater mines around naval bases (source). They would also be responsible for protecting the entrance to the Soviet Black Sea fleet off the coast in Sevastopol,Crimea. If a diver got close to the entrance, the dolphins would signal to a coastal station using echolocation. 

    The U.S. also has a navy animal service which contains bottle-nosed dolphins and sea lions (source). These underwater creatures help search for undersea mines or recover equipment (source). A secret 1960s CIA project called OXYGAS, also aimed to use dolphins to attach explosive devices to enemy ships (source).

    Video outlining the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. Credit to: Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific.

    Satellite imagery showed that the Russian Black Sea naval base had deployed dolphins at the beginning of the Ukraine War in 2022 (source). Experts suspected they were being used to prevent Ukrainian special operations from infiltrating the harbour and sabotaging ships.

    Furthermore, in 2015, Hamas announced the capture of an Israeli spy dolphin however, no reports or evidence ever surfaced to confirm this claim (source).

    5.0 The Russian Spy Whale

    If dolphins can be animal spies, then whales can too, right? In 2019, observers found a Beluga Whale off the coast of Norway wearing a harness with a Russian harness and a GoPro camera holder (source). Norway’s domestic intelligence agency launched an investigation into the whale and found that it is most likely part of a Russian research programme (source). Norway’s authorities suspected that Hvaldimir, the whale, was an experimental spy whale for the Russian military (source). However, the Russian government has not confirmed that they were training the marine mammal for military operations. A member of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research suggested that it is likely that the Russian navy was training the whale to protect its submarine fleet (source).

    6.0. Catfish Charlie

    The CIA Office for Advanced Technologies and Programs started Operation Charlie in the 1990s. Charlie was an unmanned underwater vehicle designed to look like a catfish (source). The engineers designing the robotic fish had to build a propulsion system so that the tail would swing side to side like a real fish (source). The missions of Catfish Charlie are still classified, but official documentation stipulates that it was involved in collecting water samples. Researchers are still unsure what missions the robot would be useful for but some suggest that water samples from an area can reveal nuclear run off or biochemical agents (source). This would then help the intelligence community identify potential weapons being manufactured nearby.

    7.0 The Future of Spy Animals

    7.1 Insect Spies

    Okay, so technically not a real life creature, but these robot insects are the future of espionageThe first insect-size robospy originated during the Cold War (the golden era of animal espionage it would seem) (source). The CIA developed the bug as their first insect-size unmanned vehicle which could travel up to 200 meters. They designed the device to look like a dragonfly because of its hovering behaviour and its unremarkable presence in most countries. However, it seems that they did not build the device to withstand wind pressure. Even a gentle breeze would cause the Insectothopter to divert from its flight path and lose connection with its commander. 

    Scientists have been making modern Cyborg insects since 2006 when the Pentagon’s research centre (DARPA) asked for the creation of beetles which could be remotely controlled and equipped with listening devices (source). The mission was successful. At an academic conference in Italy, researchers for the University of California successfully equipped a beetle with electrodes and could send signals using a wireless circuit to control the muscles of the insect (source). The University of Michigan has also developed its own cyborg beetle, which can fly approximately 100 metres (source).

    8.0 Conclusion

    It appears intelligence agencies will go to great lengths to stay ahead of the game and outsmart their enemies. In this era of information-sharing, it is vital for states to think of new ideas and means of espionage in order to remain undiscovered. For many animal-lovers, these creatures are innocent and sweet. They are the perfect agent at earning trust. It is likely that many experiments, particularly those involving surgical procedures, would not go down well with animal-rights groups. It would therefore not be surprising if authorities never disclosed several intelligence animal programmes to the public.

    Whilst suspicions of Amazon Alexa and TikTok are prevalent, could the real listener be your pet?

    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear is an intelligence analyst currently pursuing the International Masters programme in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS). Her main areas of interest are Balkan security, European affairs, and extremism.

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