Late last week, an Egyptian man captured a stork wearing a curious electronic contraption and, worried it could be a surveillance device, brought it to the police. Eventually, everyone concluded that the contraption was a harmless wildlife tracker, and the stork is sitting in a cell as it waits for authorities to approve its release.
The internet thought this whole situation was funny, with most write-ups lamely tending towards the punny (as in: “In a case that ruffled feathers…”). Typically, the man’s vigilance and the stork’s subsequent detention have been attributed to an increased state of confusion, terror, and suspicion in the recently tumultuous country.
But while the reaction may seem, on its face, a bit much, the Egyptians aren’t overly scared, stupid, or ignorant (as some of the reactions on social media inevitably claimed) to view animals as possible infiltrators.
While it sounds like the plot from a bad movie, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction: There's a long, storied history of militaries and spy agencies turning animals into listening devices, message carriers, and bomb sniffers.
Here are four of my favorite successful and not-so-successful attempts to create spies out of animals:
1. Pigeons Of War
Like many birds, pigeons have a remarkable sense of direction. They can be put in a sensory-deprivation box at home, flown (unconscious) to another location, and find their way back.
Germany, Iraq, America, and other countries have exploited this talent for military purposes, using pigeons to collect audio and video, send messages during disruptions in radio signals, and more.
During World War II, a pigeon — the aptly-named G.I. Joe — saved over 1,000 British soldiers and Italian citizens by traveling 20 miles in 20 minutes (from a place it had never been before) to bring a message to the British to not bomb an Italian city the Allied forces had just taken. (You can listen to a great Radiolab segment about G.I. Joe here)
The British have an award for animal acts of valor, the Dickin Medal. It’s given to animals for “displaying conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty.” To date more pigeons have received the medal than all other animals combined.
(If you’re interested, you can read biographies of all 32 pigeons awarded the medal here. Seriously.)
2. DARPA is Trying to Bug...Bugs
You’ve probably said “Boy, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that!” recently.
This is a thing that may actually be possible in the near future.
DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense — otherwise known as the organization most likely to lead to a Terminator-like scenario — has been researching the ability to remotely control flying insects for years, for surveillance purposes.
The insects would become, in essence, “buggable bugs.” Applications for this type of technology aren’t difficult to dream up, with the simplest being the “fly on the wall” scenario.
A bit more speculatively, it's not implausible to think that they could also also be used as vectors for small amounts of chemical or biological agents capable of surreptitiously causing injury or death to individual people.
3. "Acoustic Kitty": A Cold War-Era Program, Not a Hipster Band
In the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency, in the midst of the Cold War, wanted to eavesdrop on the likes of Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, and other foreign leaders, but had trouble doing so.
A (somewhat unethical) veterinarian implanted a microphone and a transmitter into a cat’s head for the CIA, which hoped that it could be trained to sit near a group of people and capture a conversation.
The cat’s field test was less than successful. Rather than sit next to the targets, it ran into the street and was run over by a car. The program was deemed a failure and scrapped not long after.
4. Bomb-Sniffing Dolphins (Sort Of)
Finally, you’ve probably heard how smart dolphins are thought to be. The American Navy has, too.
Since the 1950s, it has attempted to train dolphins to use sonar to find underwater mines and to act as sentries, with some apparent success.