Spies who weren’t even humans- The most highly trained ones by CIA

The I.Q. Zoo’s chicken tick-tack-toe booth, Breland (with a trained otter) founder of I.Q. Zoo, a dolphin in training to carry Navy equipment (Right)

Photo story:  The I.Q. Zoo’s chicken tick-tack-toe booth, Breland (with a trained otter) founder of I.Q. Zoo, a dolphin in training to carry Navy equipment (Right)

US government’s deployment of non-human secret agents including ravens, pigeons and even cats to spy on cold war enemies was revealed by a former trainer. No one in an Eastern European capital apartment would bother looking at the rustling black feathers of a raven trying to settle on an apartment window. They would rather be busy with the newspaper or chill out with vodka set out on a table. Nor would another piece of gray slate resting on the ledge of the old building would look out of ordinary. However, those in the apartment building find it disturbing if they knew it came from CIA’s most advanced technical lab headquartered half a world away in Langley, Virginia. The raven that transported it there is no ordinary bird but a valuable US intelligent asset.

It would be a typical day at the IQ zoo, the most attractive place for tourists of Hot Springs, Arkansas in the 1960s. The zoo showed the accomplishment that had been made in animal behavioral psychology. Visitors would rush in to watch chickens play baseball, raccoons play basketball and macaws ride bicycles, ducks drumming and pigs pawing at pianos. There are possibilities that if an animal had been seen in TV commercials to do such things during that era would come from Hot Springs.

Though it might apparently seem like the two scenes incoherent, war makes strange be fellows indeed. And one of the most fascinating known stories of the cold war is that the people involved in making animals do something whimsically human were under Government contract for defense and intelligence work. The same process that was behind the 1950’s trained pig show ‘Priscilla the Fastidious Pig’ or ‘the educated hen’ would lead projects such as training ravens to deposit and retrieve objects, pigeons to signal of enemy attacks, or even cats to spy on enemy conversations. At the spot light of these projects were two assistants of Harvard University psychologists B.F. Skinner and Bob Bailey who was the first director of Navy’s dolphin pioneering project. Though the use of animals in military purpose dates back to ancient Greek era, this trio undertook the 1960’s promises to an entirely sophisticated level.

76 years old Bailey says that they ‘never’ found an animal that they could not train. Bailey in his career left no stones unturned from teaching dolphins to detect submarines to inventing bird brain, a device that made possible for humans to play tick-tack-toe against a chicken. Bailey also described how he trained a spider who can detect lasers. Mentioning Skinner as a real inspiration in the field Bailey described Skinner’s popular method called ‘operant conditioning’ that makes animals do things voluntarily. In this process animals learn to associate an action with rewards. Skinner would prefer pigeons which would peck at certain buttons to receive food.

Skinner received defense funding during World War II to research missile homing device based on pigeons. It was not deployed though but his two graduate students Keller Breland and his wife Marian was inspired by the project and left Skinner’s lab in 1947 to set up the I.Q. Zoo in 1955. Skinners conditioning was in action here even in the form of basketball-playing raccons. It was not surprising that the Naval Air Weapons Station at the China Lake invited them to address a navy program of marine animals for defense program headed by Bob Bailey.


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Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE