by Sally Carpenter
Spy literature and movies are chock-full of gadgets for the agents. Real-life agencies have another gimmick up their trench coat sleeves: trained animals.
As far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, armies have used homing pigeons to carry messages to far-flung troops. During World War I, to avoid the interception of radio signals, the allied forces deployed pigeons with messages attached to the birds’ legs. The U.S. military also used pigeons in the 1960s and 70s to detect ambushes. The birds would fly ahead of advancing allied troops and would swoop down if they spotted the opposing soldiers. The drawback was the inability for the allies to retrieve the birds if they didn’t land. In the early 1990s, tiny cameras were strapped to the pigeons’ legs to take aerial shots of enemy territory.
During the Cold War, the CIA trained ravens to carry objects, such as a file folder, in their beaks. They could retrieve and drop off items on an enemy’s desk, assuming the window was open. Ravens could also deposit recording devices or explosives on the windowsill of an enemy’s apartment or office.
In modern times, spy work has moved to the sea. Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Navy trained bottlenose dolphins, with their natural sonar abilities, to locate underwater mines and enemy submarines. In 2015, the Navy had eighty-five dolphins and fifty sea lions housed in San Diego.
Russia also has trained dolphins that not only find objects but also can kill enemy divers and attach mines to boat hulls. Russian dolphins are trained at a facility in Seveastopol in Crimea.
Seas lions, with their excellent eyesight, are useful as well in finding and retrieving lost objects underwater.
A beluga whale was once found of the coast of Norway. The animal had been ramming into boats and chewing fishing nets. The whale wore a harness stamped with “Equipment of St. Petersburg.” The rig had a spot where a camera could be attached. Russia denied that the whale was a spy—even though Russia had a naval base in the area.
One of the most interesting animal plans was the CIA’s “acoustic kitty” project of the 1960s. The agency spent $10 million to surgically alter cats into mobile audio recorders. Theoretically, a veterinarian would cut open a cat and insert a microphone into the ears, a transmitter at the base of the skull, and wire along the body to the tail to serve as the antennae. The cat would then wander unnoticed in parks and Soviet embassies to pick up conversations.
The project was canceled in 1967. According to an urban legend, one rigged cat was sent outside, only to be run over by a taxi. However Robert Wallace, head of the CIA’s Office of Technical Service in the 1990s, says this didn’t happen. Since records of the project were lost in a 1989 fire, the truth may never be known.
The development of drones has made many animal spies obsolete, but this hasn’t stopped the use of critters in fiction. In the TV series Mission: Impossible, the Impossible Missions Force had animals on the team. In the episode “The Cardinal,” Barney and Willey use a long, high-powered tube to shoot mosquitoes into an upper story of a secured building. The bugs infected a villain, and the IMF then came, disguised as medics, to smuggle the man out of building.
While shooting the episode, the crew couldn’t find mosquitoes. Mount St. Mary’s College, where the episode was being shot, had a biology department that loaned the use of its insects. Just when the crew was ready shoot the scene, college officials called to say the mosquitoes they were using were infected with malaria!
In the three-parter “The Flacon,” an Asian falcon helps the IMF to create several diversions. The real falcon was only used in close-ups because it won’t fly on cue; when it finally lit off, the bird never returned. So a buzzard was used in the long shots of the bird flying.
The episode “Chico” had a small dog lowered down an airshaft to retrieve a framed postage stamp. Noted animal trainer Frank Inn, who supplied animal actors in dozens of programs, brought in the dog, which was more cooperative than the falcon.
“The Seal” used a literal cat burglar, Rusty, to walk along a narrow plank above a pressure-sensitive floor to steal a carved emerald seal. The cat, Rhubarb, was another one of Frank Inn’s animals. Filming the theft sequence took three days and four cats, followed by a massive editing job.
I’m a fan of Mission: Impossible, one of the influences for my Psychedelic Spy cozy mystery series. The latest book is Hippie Haven Homicide. Protagonist Noelle McNabb, an actress at a 1960s Christmas theme park, teams up with SIAMESE, a super secret spy organization. She has trained her pet, Ceebee (short for cat burglar), to do tricks. SIAMESE uses Ceebee for its own acoustic kitty project.
The microphone is inside a metal collar that is placed around a cat’s neck. A receiver is implanted behind Ceebee’s ear to allow Noelle to give radio commands. SIAMESE agent Destiny King parks a van full of electronic equipment close to the mission site to tape record the conversations picked up by the cat’s collar.
Spoiler: Ceebee is not run over by a vehicle.
Hippie Haven Homicide is available in print and ebook at amazon.com.
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