A Furry Listening Device: Project Acoustic Kitty

The author's old cat. He wasn't a spy, but he epitomized exactly why cats made horrible listening devices.

The author’s old cat. He wasn’t a spy, but he epitomized exactly why cats made horrible listening devices.

Humans have utilized animals for warfare for almost as long as we have dreamed up new and inventive ways to kill each other. Horses are the most well known example, but a veritable zoo of animal warriors, from elephants to camels to dogs, have taken to the battlefield. War animals typically had a few common features that made them useful on the battlefield. They were relatively large, had a lot of muscle power, and were relatively easy to train. While there have been exceptions to these broad generalizations, they often held true.

These reasons were part of why cats never featured prominently on the battlefield, with one notable exception. Cat’s aren’t particularly large and, as any cat owner can attest, not very trainable. That didn’t stop the CIA from trying to utilize cats in the war on Communism. Rather than perform on the battlefield, America’s premier spy agency sought to use cats as listening devices in a plan dubbed Project Acoustic Kitty.

The logic behind using a cat as a listening device was sound–after all, no one pays much attention to a house cat. Point of fact, unless it wants something, most people aren’t even aware if a cat is even in the room. And only the most paranoid person would think a cat was bugged with a listening device.

The problem then was designing a bug that could be mounted on a cat without being seen or damaged when the animal groomed itself. These necessities made the project take a ghoulish turn. The components would have to be implanted into the cat, providing unique technical challenges to engineers. These components would have to be invisible, not inhibit the cat’s natural movements, and be able to withstand conditions under the animal’s skin.

It took about five years worth of work to rig up the system a 3/4 inch long transmitter was embedded at the base of the cat’s skull. The microphone was embedded in the cat’s ear. An antenna made of fine wire was woven through the cat’s fur, from the base of the skull to the tip of the tail. The apparatus was powered by a small set of batteries, giving it a relatively short run time. The system was first tested on dummies before being implanted into live animals.

The first prototype acoustic kitty to be tested in the field was a grey and white adult female. The apparatus was installed with no problems, but issues with the concept itself soon arose. These would be obvious to any cat owner–cats are fickle, independent creatures who do as they please. Lab tests had shown that cats could be directed in controlled environments to target specific objects, but outside all bets were off. The test subject wandered off when she got bored or hungry. The hunger issue was solved with an implant, but that would not likely curb the cat’s basic nature. Still, once the hunger issue was addressed, the cat was taken for its first field test. A van was parked across the street from a park, where two marks sat on a bench.

Acoustic kitty was deployed and began making her way across the street. Seconds later, a taxi flattened her, effectively ending the $20 million project. Agents quickly recovered the body, not wanting Soviet spies to get a hold of the recording equipment. Acoustic Kitty ended in 1967, when someone finally realized that trying to herd cats is a bad idea.

Sources:

Edwardes, Charlotte. “CIA recruited cat to bug Russians.” Telegraph.co.uk. November 4, 2001. The Telegraph. May 20, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1361462/CIA-recruited-cat-to-bug-Russians.html

Soniak, Matt. “The CIA Plan to Use Cats as Spies (and the Taxi that Ruined it.)” MentalFloss.com. May 20, 2011. Mental Floss. May 20, 2014. http://mentalfloss.com/article/27790/cia-plan-use-cats-spies-and-taxi-ruined-it

Viegas, Jennifer. “The Cat Who Couldn’t Spy: A CIA Fail.” News.Discovery.com. May 10, 2013. Discovery.com. May 20, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/animals/pets/cat-spies-fail-130510.htm