'Acoustic Kitty': How the CIA tried to turn a cat into a cyborg spy

Conventional spies weren't enough for the CIA in the 1960s. They wanted to find a way to create cyber-cats that could eavesdrop on conversations.

Any cat owner can tell you that getting your feline furball to do your bidding is often a thankless task, but that didn't stop the CIA from trying to create a cyborg cat spy in the 1960s.

Operation "Acoustic Kitty" was a project hatched by CIA researchers in an effort to create an animal that could hold an eavesdropping device which could record conversations while filtering out background noise.

The idea was to fit a cat with implants – a power source, a transmitter, a microphone and an antenna – that would not influence its movements, would not draw attention by irritating the cat and would withstand the cat's internal body temperature.  The transmitter was embedded at the base of the cat's skull, the mic was planted in its ear and the antenna was woven through the cat's hair out to its tail, Mental Floss reported.

The joint project between the CIA's Office of Technical Services and the Office of Research and Development hit stumbling blocks because, well, it’s hard to tell a cat what to do.

While the cats were able to target specific locations when confined to the lab, unfortunately, "outside the lab, there was just no herding the cat," according to Mental Floss.

"They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” said former CIA officer Victor Marchetti told The Telegraph in an interview in 2001, shortly after documents of the program had first been made public.  “The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity. They tested him and tested him. They found he would walk off the job when he got hungry, so they put another wire in to override that,"

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One cat was tested in the field. A CIA van parked across the street from a park where two subjects were sitting on a bench. The cat was to go eavesdrop on their conversation.

Unfortunately, that cat immediately wandered into the street and was hit by a taxi.

 

The CIA released a heavily-redacted memo about its views on training cats that said the agency saw "no reason" to believe that cats cannot be trained to move short distances and approach targets, however "the environmental and security factors in using this technique in real foreign situations force us to conclude that, for our … purposes, it would not be practical."

The cyborg cat isn't the only animal/robot hybrid the government has tried to create.

Other cyborg animal projects have been funded by DARPA, which offered researchers funding if they could devise a way to make insect robots that could be used as spy drones, Emily Anthes, a science writer who has researched Acoustic Kitty and author of "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts," told MSN News.   

"DARPA is interested in different ways to use animals on the battlefield or for surveillance in particular. In some ways it's just an extension of things the military has always done they have a long history of using dogs … but now because science and technology have advanced so much, we can use new species of animals and in ways that were previously unimaginable," she said.