Select Page

Of all the lives risked in WWII, were those of thousands of dogs, used for everything from guard duty to pulling sleds.  And they almost had a particularly awful purpose on the ironically named Cat Island, if one Swiss expat had gotten his way.  William A Prestre proposed using squads of large dogs to kill Japanese soldiers.  Specifically Japanese ones.  Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, the plan was approved and the training began.  My name’s…


People have been using animals, making war, and using animals to make war for a long time now.  Think Hannibal’s elephants, Roman war horses, k9 units in Vietnam.  But for every example of animals being used this way successfully, there are a number plans, proposals, and projects that didn’t make it into the field, and that’s what we’re looking at today.


Now, if you’re going to use an animal for an important job, you need to pick the right animal.  First up, you’ll want an animal that’s obedient and trainable, like a dog or a horse, maybe a dolphin or primate.  Basically, anything but a cat will do.  In the 1960’s, the CIA chose a cat.  Unlike MK-Ultra, this project was never the subject of a Congressional hearing, but this project, called Acoustic Kitty, was provably real.


Given their stealthy nature, you could do worse than a cat as a spy.  The CIA seemed willing to overlook most of our feline friend’s personality traits as they focused on one – curiosity.  The idea was that a cat could walk soundlessly through an area where sensitive data is being discussed and not garner any special attention.  But how would the cat convey the information.  The cat would need to be, as my mom used to describe me, wired for sound.  The CIA would go on to burn millions of dollars and years of work trying to develop a cyborg-kitten spy designed to bug the Soviets and covertly retrieve information.  That’s right, we out-weirded the Russians, though I will say we don’t know what the KGB was up to that week. 


The story of the spy cat can be pieced together thanks to a bunch of declassified documents and other sources from the Cold War intelligence community.  The plan was to surgically implant a microphone in the cat’s ear canal and a small radio transmitter at the base of its skull.  I would have put it in the tail, but mostly for that cool retro-futurism aesthetic.  Working with outside audio equipment contractors, the CIA built a 3/4-inch-long transmitter to embed at the base of the cat’s skull. Finding a place for the microphone was difficult at first, but the ear canal turned out to be prime, and seemingly obvious, real estate. The antenna was made from fine wire and woven, all the way to the tail, through the cat’s long fur to conceal it. The batteries also gave the techies a little trouble, since the cats’ size limited them to using only the smallest batteries and restricted the amount of time the cat would be able to record.


The vet also “bypassed the cat’s sense of hunger.”  Of that, I was afraid to look any deeper.  Fitted with these simple devices, the cat could be trained to sneak into Soviet embassies, or even the Kremlin, where it would record conservations and beam them back to the CIA agents.  The documents explain that they experimented with techniques to command the spy cat with auditory commands, effectively controlling the cat’s movement like a remote-controlled car.  incredulous noise Did you though?  Really train a cat like a sheep dog?  


According to Victor Marchetti, a special assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA  in the 1960s, in the book The Wizards of Langley, “A lot of money was spent. They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity. They tested him and tested him.”   He went on to explain what happened with the cat’s brief first mission.   It was taken to eavesdrop on two men in a park outside the Soviet compound in Washington, D.C.  The cat was released nearby, and well… [sfx tire screech cat crash] Yeah.  The cat was struck and killed by a taxi almost as soon as it set off.   “There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead!” PAUL CSOMO


Or was it?  In 2013, by Robert Wallace, a former Director of the CIA’s Office of Technical Service, refuted that story, saying the cat proved too difficult to work with and “the equipment was taken out of the cat; the cat was re-sewn for a second time, and lived a long and happy life afterwards.”  Full disclosure: Marchetti later became an outspoken critic of the US intelligence community. He was known to advance some controversial and dubious ideas, some of which have been considered conspiracy theories, meaning his insights should be taken with a lovely little flake of Maldon salt.


Indeed, CIA documents tell a slightly different story. A heavily-redacted report titled “Views on Trained Cats” suggests the project was somewhat of a success, but it was ultimately found to be of no use to the agency. It read: “We have satisfied ourselves it is indeed possible… This is in itself a remarkable achievement.”  However, it also notes: “Our final examination of trained cats…. for use in the… convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical way to our highly specialized needs.”  I could have saved them a lot of money.  How much?  Oh, neighborhood of $20 million.  Yep, $20mil.


The Cold War may have been largely a US vs USSR thing, but there were a lot of countries in the middle, literally, who didn’t want their arses atomized.  In the 1950s, the UK designed a nuclear landmine that would be placed in West Germany to stop a possible Soviet assault on the rest of Europe,  “… not only destroy facilities and installations over a large area, but … deny occupation of the area to an enemy for an appreciable time due to contamination …”. The landmine, dubbed Operation Blue Peacock, isn’t that lovely?, would be operated remotely so that it could be detonated at just the right moment to inflict maximum damage on the invading Red Army.  The weapon could go off in one of three ways: an 8-day timer, remote control, or if someone tampered with it.  The Blue Peacock landmines were thought to yield a 10-kiloton explosion which would produce a crater 375 ft/114 m in diameter.  Such destructive potential ultimately led the British to realize that there might be a teensy bit of nuclear fallout from such a blast, just a skosh, from the bomb they buried in an allied nation. 


But the weapon had another hitch.  Apparently a Germany winter is to a nuclear landmine as a Russian winter is to Napoleanic or Nazi troops – too damn cold.  The Blue Peacock team were worried that the buried ballistics could get so cold that the detonator would be unable to trigger a nuclear blast.  In 1957, British nuclear physicists found a solution: chickens.  Plain barnyard chickens.  It wasn’t their first thought, in fairness, but the chicken idea made it into the maybe pile.


“The birds would be put inside the casing of the bomb, given seed to keep them alive and stopped from pecking at the wiring,” the BBC notes.   The chickens would have been packed into the outer housing with enough food and water to last a week, during which time their body heat was thought to be enough to maintain the triggering mechanism at a working temperature.  Ultimately, though, Operation Blue Peacock was abandoned the following year after the production of only two prototypes.


There are a fair few people who know about Blue Peacock, but don’t believe it’s true.  You can see how they might, even without the Project’s ridiculous nature.  The Blue Peacock file was declassified on 1 April 2004.  Tom O’Leary, head of education and interpretation at the National Archives, replied to the media that, “It does seem like an April Fool but it most certainly is not. The Civil Service does not do jokes.” 


After hearing about the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Pennsylvania dentist and inventor Lytle S. Adams hatched a scheme to use bat as bombs to attack Japanese cities.  The plan was to strap small incendiary bombs, like really small ones, with timers to bats, and release them above Japanese cities.  The bats would roost in eeves and attics, causing buildings to catch fire when the bombs went off.  So many buildings would ignite at once, Adams reasoned, that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to suppress the fires before they spreads.  Adams had an ‘in’ with Eleanor Roosevelt so government officials actually considered his plan.  By 1943, the U.S. Army was conducting serious tests.  Thousands of bats were captured with nets, and were placed in ice cube trays, which helps remind you of how tiny an animal we’re talking about, and cooled to put them into hibernation to be shipped overseas.  As the military did more research, they were beginning to like the plan.  They found that bats can carry almost double their own weight in flight and that their natural behaviors made them perfect for sneaking into rooftops and structures undetected.  They were so good at secretly penetrating buildings, that when a few escaped testing, they managed to destroy a fuel tanker, air hangar, and a general’s car.  The Marine Corps took over the program as high command wanted one million bats ready to launch on Japan as soon as possible. The bats were to be loaded into bomb shaped cages filled with stacked trays, each payload holding about 1,000 bats. The bombs would be dropped by B-24 Bombers from 5,000 feet, parachutes would deploy at 1,000 feet, and the bats would spread out over a large area to infest buildings.  Project “X-Ray,” as it was renamed by the Marine Corps, had already been through 30 tests at a cost of $2mil when it was cancelled in favor of the Manhattan Project and its new and devastating weapon.


If you need a daytime animal-based air attack, there’s always B.F. Skinner’s pigeon-guided missile.  Called, disappointedly, Project Pigeon, Skinner’s plan was to put a camera on the front of a missile, connected to a tiny screen in the nose cone, where would be nestled a pigeon, whose job was to peck at the screen to guide the missile to the target.  As the pigeons pecked, cables harnessed to each one’s head would mechanically steer the missile until it finally reached its mark. Alas, there was no escape hatch.  Skinner had already used pigeons in his psychological research, training them to press levers for food.  An obsessive inventor, he had been pondering weapons targeting systems one day when he saw a flock of birds maneuvering in formation in the sky. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” he said. “Could they not guide a missile? Was the answer to the problem waiting for me in my own back yard?” Keith Gawla ….No.  Despite a successful demonstration of the trained pigeons, officials remained skeptical and eventually decided to terminate the project. 




When a beluga whale started approaching fishing boats and pulling on ropes near a small Norwegian town in April, people were curious.  When they noticed the beluga was wearing a harness with “Equipment of St. Petersburg” stamped it, people became downright suspicious.  Marine experts have suggested that the whale was part of a Russian military program that trains civilian cetaceans for military operations.   The ability of these animals to detect and find targets at depth or in murky water is something technology can’t duplicate yet but which militaries find very valuable.  In 2017, Russian state television reported that the country was experimenting with using beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, and several species of seals to guard entrances to naval bases, assist divers, and possibly even to kill trespassers.  The belugas would have to be dropped from the program, however, when it became clear that swimming for long periods in cold, polar waters made the whales sick.  Russkaya zima takes out another one.  Their aquatic mammal program had grown a few years earlier when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.  They took over a Ukrainian military unit that included bottlenose “combat dolphins.”  The Ukranian dolphins had been trained to search for and tag underwater mines, as well as to stop unwanted swimmers attempting to access restricted waterways.


Before you roll your eyes and brush this off as weird cold war Russia nonsense, know that the US was right there with them.  The U.S. Navy has had a similar program since the 1960s.  Note the past participle, “has had,” meaning both the before time and now.  Not all oddball military animals get a one-way ticket, though.  The US Navy, the same organization that gave my husband his amazing skills with electronics, has a crack squad of … dolphins.  Or crack pod, I suppose.  The Navy Marine Mammal Program at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, California trains 85 dolphins and 50 sea lions to carry out a range of military tasks, from locating underwater mines to flagging the presence of enemy swimmers for harbor defense.  The Navy hoped to study the dolphin’s biomechanics and then use its findings for developing faster torpedoes, but quickly the focus changed to covert ops.  Military researchers soon realized that the dolphins themselves could become a battlefield asset.  Originally a secret project, the Marine Mammal Program has employed a menagerie of animals that includes sharks, rays, orcas, who are in fact dolphins, pilot whales and seals since it was started.  Dolphins have seen occasional use during war. In 1970 and 1971, five cetaceans guarded an Army ammunition pier in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, providing surveillance to thwart enemy swimmers.  Dolphins were also deployed from Bahrain during the Tanker War, a late phase of the Iran-Iraq war in which the warring neighbors targeted one another’s oil vessels after the US got involved in 1987, to protect Kuwaiti oil exports.  The animals even helped provide security for the Republican National Convention of 1996, which took place at the waterside San Diego Convention Center less than a month after a bombing at the summer    Olympics in Atlanta.  Dolphins returned to the Persian Gulf in 2003, to clear mines ahead of coalition vessels during the US-led invasion of Iraq.  


“[Bottlenose dolphins] are better than any machine as far as detecting mines,” says Paul Nachtigall, head of the marine mammal research program at the University of Hawaii in Kane’ohe Bay. They can also do it much faster than a machine can.  Dolphins can be especially effective close to shore, where crashing surf and ship traffic generate a lot of noise that would confuse, confound and counteract modern mechanical systems, but not dolphins.  They’re used to that bullshit in their ocean.  We went on an overnight to the beach last week and saw some dolphins out past the breakers and I’d forgotten how cool it was to see them.  A dolphin’s sonar is so finely tuned that they’re able to work around all the hideous background noise we’ve put into their environment.


Experiments Nachtigall conducted in the mid-1990s with a resident bottlenose dolphin named BJ demonstrated this sensitive ability.  Nachtigall asked BJ to distinguish between metal cylinders made of either stainless steel, brass, or aluminum.  Even though he buried the four inch-long objects under two feet of mud, BJ passed with flying colors.  Researchers still don’t know how dolphins do this, but it’s a topic that has captured the attention of scientists, both military and civilian, for decades.  Maybe for the next Patreon bonus mini, I’ll write about the experiment that involved a researcher cohabitating with a dolphin in, like, a house.  Either that or the Russian scientist who tried to create human-chimpanzee hybrids, reportedly as the behest of Stalin.  We’ll see which way the wind blows me.   Side note: who else immediately thinks of BJ Hunnicut from MASH when they hear BJ?  Congrats on qualifying for AARP, I guess.


The California sea lions aren’t equipped with natural sonar, but they have excellent eyesight and are especially good at noticing changes and things that are out of place in their environment.  Sea lions also have the advantage of being amphibious.  Suck it, dolphins.  The U.S. Navy uses them to find and retrieve unarmed test ordnance like practice mines. Handlers give a sea lion an attachment system it can hold in its mouth and send the mammal overboard.  Once the animal finds its target, it clamps the device to it and handlers in a boat at the surface can haul it in.


A 2011 media demonstration in San Diego Bay, California, featured a former U.S. Navy SEAL attempting to infiltrate the harbor with an unarmed mine. The Navy deployed dolphins and sea lions to patrol the area, and both caught the diver on every one of his five attempts. The sea lion even managed to attach a clamp to the diver’s leg, and handlers on the surface reeled him in like a fish, which I can’t find video of but I hope it’s out there somewhere.  Because the Universe likes balance, that same year, the Navy boys in San Diego also killed three wild dolphins with an underwater explosion when the animals, despite the Navy’s best efforts, got into the shockwave radius after it was too late to abort.  So if you find yourself reincarnated as a dolphin, maybe just steer clear of San Diego.


But dolphins *could also be trained to kill, according to one persistent rumor surrounding the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program.  In his memoir on life as a Navy SEAL, Brandon Webb writes about a training exercise in San Diego to evade enemy military dolphins. Trainers used the mammals “to track down enemy divers, outfitting them with a device strapped onto the head that contains a [simulated] compressed gas needle,” Webb writes. “Once the dolphin has tracked you down, it butts you; the needle shoots out and pokes you, creating an embolism.”  An air or gas bubble injected into a vein or artery can quickly travel into the organs, something that’s potentially lethal. Webb sums it up: “Within moments, you’re dead.”  The program’s FAQ page emphatically denies ever training dolphins “to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy ships.” 


The keen-eared among you may have picked up on the inclusion of sharks on the list .  The sharks weren’t used for finding ordnance, the sharks were unwitting suicide bombers.  This lunacy was an actual project sanctioned by the Navy, according to one of my all-time favorite authors Mary Roach, who found this program while writing her 2016 book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.  Good research is key to me liking something and Roach’s research is [chef kiss] and most definitely influenced the creation of this podcast.  Next time you’re on Twitter, thank @mary_roach for helping to inspire your favorite podcast, @brainonfactspod.  I’m also on fb and insta, and I’m still considering doing a TikTok but I can’t decide on a username that serves both the podcast and my voiceover business because I absolutely cannot be asked to manage two more channels.  And I’m probably going to do Clubhouse.  Hey, does anyone know a good social media virtual assistant?


Sadly, even the imitable Mary Roach couldn’t find out all that much about the project as it was classified by the US government, until she met Michael Morisy, the founder of a website called MuckRock which specialises in helping people with information requests like these.  Amazingly, Morisy managed to track down the people who handle Navy mandatory declassification reviews (MDR) and Roach was able to get hold of the final report relating to the exploding shark plan, called Project Headgear.  No, the headgear was not lasers.  [sfx Dr Evil]     Project Headgear was a secret mission where shark biologists and weapons specialists teamed up to convert sharks into bomb delivery systems which would detonate when they got near to an enemy’s ship.  It wasn’t a fly-by-night, flash in the pan, spitballing idea; the program actually ran from 1958-1971.


As detailed in MIT’s science magazine Undark, and you should definitely check out their podcast too, the idea was that bombs would be strapped to the shark, which would also wear a box on its head, like a terrifying tefillin.  The box had a compass and could communicate with mission control aboard the warship, and was wired to electrodes inserted into the shark’s shoulders.  Not only is that terrible-sounding, but now I’m stuck on the idea of sharks having shoulders.  It’s like penguin knees.


Sharks were preferred for this project over dolphins as the latter were deemed too smart and could not be trusted to follow orders.  Clever and contrary?  I knew I liked dolphins for a reason.  Like with Acoustic Kitty, there was no good way to steer the sharks.  I say no good way because they did have a way but it wasn’t a “good” one.  If the shark swam off course, the box would give them a zap of between 5-25 volts on one side or the other to correct it.  Although manually shocking the sharks worked initially, later tests in swimming pools had disappointing results because the sharks unsurprisingly didn’t do what the humans wanted.  If the electrical signals sent to the shark were too weak, the shark simply ignored them.  If the signal was too strong, the shark would, understandably, make “radical and even violent movements” and wouldn’t change its course as requested, and you can hardly blame them.


In the end, it was determined that sharks make rubbish suicide bombers.  None of the sharks would continue swimming in the desired direction towards an enemy target for more than half an hour, only covering about three-quarters of a nautical mile/.8mi/1.4km, not nearly long enough to be of use in a sneak attack scenario.  Another group of researchers found that sharks were not really suited for carrying any kind of payload.  They are nature’s perfect killing machine, after all, not a beast of burden.  The project was declared to be a resounding failure.


“It’s a system perhaps better suited to land targets and land mammals. A pack animal – a donkey, say, or a mule – is accustomed to carrying loads and responsive to simple left-right directional irritants, like bits and spurs. Today of course, the US military has drones to do this work. Who needs donkeys?,” writes Roach.


And that’s… Pestre persuaded the military to use an entire Mississippi island to train, he hoped, as many as two million dogs.  The plan was to use the dogs as a first wave of attack out of the landing craft during island invasions.  The attack would be followed up by US troops as the Japanese fled in confusion.  In a bizarre parallel to the Russian anti tank dog, there were no Japanese soldiers to train the dogs with, a lot of the dogs refused to obey, and none of them could function when exposed to shellfire, and the multi-million dollar program was cancelled.