Skip to main content

Project Acoustic Kitty Lets the Spy Cat Out of the Bag

Kristine has a B.A. in Journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan.

Operation Acoustic Kitty attempted to create feline spies in the 1960s

Operation Acoustic Kitty attempted to create feline spies in the 1960s

What Was Project Acoustic Kitty?

The propensity of the Central Intelligence Agency to use unconventional methods in an effort to win the spying wars over international rivals—especially the former Soviet Union—is well-documented. They even attempted to use cats as instruments of espionage.

In the 1960s, the CIA became convinced they could train cats to become spies. Project Acoustic Kitty was born.

Feline Espionage

According to the article “The CIA Plan to Use Cats as Spies (and the Taxi That Ruined It)” on Mentalfloss.com, “Project Acoustic Kitty,” as it was actually named by agents, took five years to complete and was a joint project between the CIA’s Office of Technical Services and Office of Research and Development.

Because cats were known to be curious, operatives became convinced it would be possible to wire a cat with listening equipment and release it in areas where it would attract little attention. By using audio cues, these cats could then work their way into buildings and situations where they would act as spies.

Ideally, the cat would slip silently into rooms and offices. According to the article “The CIA Experimented on Animals in the 1960s Too. Just Ask ‘Acoustic Kitty’” in Smithsonian Magazine, it could then record sensitive conversations, such as those between Soviet leaders.

FrankenKitty

The process of creating Acoustic Kitty was somewhat cruel. As detailed in Smithsonian Magazine by Victor Marchetti, a former assistant to the CIA’s director, the agency had to create what Marchetti described as a “FrankenKitty”: “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” Marchetti said. “They made a monstrosity.”

The agency made the project sound much simpler than it actually turned out to be. The logistics were quite complicated. According to Mentalfloss, the cat still needed to look like any ordinary cat. That meant implants could not be obvious, nor could they affect the cat’s natural movements.

The equipment could also not cause the cat any discomfort and lead it to dislodge or remove the components by licking, clawing, or rubbing them off. In addition, the implants—which included a power source, a transmitter, a microphone, and an antenna—had to withstand the cat’s biology, including internal temperature, humidity, and chemistry.

Creating a Cybercat

According to Mentalfloss, engineers and technicians worked with outside audio equipment contractors to construct a 3/4-inch-long transmitter, which they then placed near the base of the cat’s skull. A microphone was then embedded in the cat’s ear canal.

An antenna of very fine wire was concealed by the cat’s fur and woven all the way to the tail. After finding very small, easily concealed batteries—which limited their ability to record using the cat—Acoustic Kitty was ready to be tested.

Project engineers measured reactions to the installed equipment, made certain of the comfort levels, and assured that movements and behaviors would seem entirely normal, according to Mentalfloss.

Although they were aware of the potential negative fallout of using a live animal in such a morally-questionable project, they wired up their first fully-functional feline agent and began training the cat in a laboratory.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Fickle Feline

After coming out of anesthesia, the female cat was put into a recovery room. Once recovered, she was put through a series of tests and operational scenarios. But being a cat, her behavior was largely inconsistent. Her “creators” began to doubt the experiment would work.

Up to this point, project engineers could partially manage the cat within the controlled environment of the lab. However, as most people know, cats are impossible to herd and control in more open areas. According to Mentalfloss, the cat would “wander off when she got bored, distracted or hungry.”

Additional surgeries and training were able to address some of the problems. At this point, however, expenses for Project Acoustic Kitty had reached an estimated $20 million.

Cat-asthrophe

Finally, the specially-equipped feline was ready for a real-world test. According to Mentalfloss, CIA agents parked a reconnaissance van across the street from where two Soviet officials were sitting on a park bench. The information on where this encounter took place is redacted.

But there was one important point the CIA was forgetting: Cats don’t like to cooperate with humans. The cat hopped out of the van, wandered into the road, and was immediately hit and killed by a taxi.

CIA operatives collected the cat’s remains to keep the Soviets from getting the expensive audio equipment. The project continued for a short time but was ultimately abandoned by 1967, according to Mentalfloss.

A portion of the heavily-redacted CIA memorandum on Operation Acoustic Kitty

A portion of the heavily-redacted CIA memorandum on Operation Acoustic Kitty

Bugging With Bugs

This did not put an end to the CIA’s efforts to engage in non-human espionage. In the History.com article “When the CIA Learned Cats Make Bad Spies,” the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) worked with scientists at the University of California Berkeley to use insects as spies.

With DARPA’s support, researchers were able to create a “cyborg beetle” which they could remotely control. Their results, as reported in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience Journal in October 2009, were promising. According to History.com, they were able to influence the insect’s flight patterns, cause it to stop and start flying, and could even control turns by stimulating the beetle’s basilar muscles. It is not known if this project continues or was abandoned.

Cats Proved Impractical in the End

Project Acoustic Kitty has been relegated to history as a bizarre military experiment that cost millions of dollars but yielded no results. A redacted CIA memo obtained by History.com described the project’s outcome: “Our final examination of trained cat...convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”

The cat could have told them that from the start.

Further Info on Project Acoustic Kitty

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles