Throughout the centuries, competing nations have acquired information on each other’s doings in a myriad of devious and colorful ways. Almost all methods of espionage in the ancient world consisted of covert actions carried out by human agents. With the dawning of the industrial era, however, spies of all stripes began recruiting members of the animal kingdom into their ranks to gain the edge in the cutthroat arena of information gathering.
Some stories about the animals exploited for the purposes of espionage serve as sobering reminders of just how far human beings will go to get dirt on their enemies. Other examples of supposed animal spies simply reinforce the well-known fact that people operating under extreme pressure are uniquely predisposed to imagine foes lurking in every shadow.
10 The Atomic Lizard
In February 2018, a senior military adviser to the supreme leader of Iran offered Western media outlets some decidedly odd comments. He was being questioned about the recent arrests of a handful of environmentalists who had been traveling through Iran. Hassan Firuzabadi stated that he knew nothing of the arrests in question but did allege that Western visitors with seemingly innocuous agendas had been used as spies in the past.
A few years ago, said Firuzabadi, the Iranian government became suspicious of a group of individuals supposedly collecting aid funds for Palestine when their route through Iran took some surprising twists and turns.
Upon confronting the group, Iranian authorities found that they were carrying a number of “reptile desert species like lizards [and] chameleons” that had somehow been modified to attract “atomic waves.” Apparently, the lizards were to serve as beacons that would lead spies to Iran’s secretive uranium mining facilities.
Firuzabadi informed the media that the Iranian government had taken this discovery of supposedly superpowered lizards as proof positive of Western meddling in their nuclear program. One can only wonder why innocent advocates for Palestine would be packing live lizards in the first place, lending a degree of reluctant credulity to what would otherwise be wildly unfounded, if undeniably imaginative, espionage allegations made by this burgeoning Islamic superpower.
9 The Dolphin Who Knew Too Much
For decades, the United States Navy has trained dolphins to locate undersea explosive mines. Rewarded for their efforts with tasty fish, these clever cetaceans are more adept at finding mines than even the most state-of-the-art technological equipment. Perhaps it’s this well-publicized proficiency for underwater information gathering that inspired Hamas to suspect a dolphin of espionage in 2015.
Initial reports were conflicted as to whether Hamas had captured an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine or an actual dolphin. But Hamas Army Radio was quick to clear the waters by assuring its audience that the spy in reference was in fact a marine mammal equipped with cameras and other information-gathering devices.
Though the Israeli government has been met with many challenges when making attempts at international cooperation with other regional powers, they do seem to be quite adept at interspecies cooperation when it fits their intelligence-gathering goals.
8 Central Intelligence Ravens
Bob Bailey, the same person who taught the first Navy dolphins to hunt mines for treats, was also involved in CIA efforts to turn ravens into professional eavesdroppers. Actually, these ravens were trained to drop listening devices on windowsills rather than eaves, but the end results were the same. An unassuming black bird would flutter down, deposit an audio transmitter indistinguishable from a paint chip, and be gone without a trace.
Though ravens have always been known as devious tricksters, it was only with the help of Bailey and the folks at IQ Zoo that these troublemakers earned their wings as secret agents.
IQ Zoo had already made a name for itself as an academy for porcine pianists and bicycling birds before beginning its work with the CIA. Yet it was this unlikely partnership with America’s most secretive government organization that took IQ Zoo’s Pavlovian conditioning of hapless animals to the next level and thrust this kitschy tourist attraction into the wider world of espionage.
7 Mossad’s Shark Division
Bloodthirsty and unsleeping, sharks are fearsome enough even when left to their own devices. But if these toothy fish were ever to be directed by human hands, the results would be truly terrifying.
According to one Egyptian official, it’s possible that the 2010 shark attacks that occurred off the coast of Egypt were no accident. To the mind of Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha, the regional governor of the Sharm el Sheikh region, the theory that the attacking shark had been planted by Mossad was “not out of the question.”
The motive for the attack? Putting a damper on Egypt’s bustling summer tourist season.
It’s admittedly unusual for a shark to seek human prey despite the bad press that these ocean dwellers receive in Hollywood movies. To his credit, Governor Shousha did go on to say that further research needed to be done to establish whether culpability for the death of one tourist and the maiming of four others extended any further than a shark’s tiny brain and hungry stomach.
But, beyond any doubt, shark attack crime scene investigation is the last thing that anyone thought the Anti-Defamation League would be tempted to label as “anti-Semitic.”
6 Squirrel Spies
In summer 2007, no tree in Iran was safe as members of the Iranian police cracked down on an elite cell of Western spies. For at least 14 squirrels arrested in Iran, the dull life of hoarding nuts had lost its flavor and these thrill-seeking rodents had elected to embark on an action-packed career of hoarding Iranian state secrets instead.
While it’s unclear whether these furry secret agents were led away in tiny handcuffs, the basics of the story were indeed confirmed by Iran’s chief law enforcement officer, Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqadam.
Thankfully, state news agency IRNA reports that, due to the unceasing vigilance of Iran’s intelligence forces, the squirrels were stopped before they could complete their nefarious mission. The fate of the squirrels remains uncertain, with Iran surprisingly failing to make any ransom demands for the release of their Western hostages.
5 Eagle Espionage
With their keen vision and powerful talons, eagles would make the perfect weapons of war if they could be properly trained. More than likely, it was their tireless awareness of the threat that these predatory avians could pose to Lebanese national security that caused two patriotic hunters to down a high-flying eagle on suspicions of being an Israeli spy.
The secretive bird was discovered circling suspiciously over the town of Ashqout. And once the bird was laid low, behold! A tag belonging to an Israeli university and a transmitting device were found attached to the unfortunate eagle.
The dutiful hunters quickly handed the eagle over to the proper authorities so that they could perform a thorough investigation. This awesome display of superior prowess in the arena of aerial counterintelligence surely struck despair into the hearts of the sinister Mossad agents who had sent the spy bird on its ill-fated mission.
4 The Acoustic Kitty
Animal cruelty comes in all forms. But even to the most sadistic psychopath, the idea of cutting a cat open and stuffing a microphone inside would seem both revolting and ill-advised. Unless, of course, you happen to work for the CIA, in which case working on a project like Acoustic Kitty would seem like just another day in the life.
In the early 1960s, the CIA decided to try its hand at a task that many throughout history had attempted and failed to accomplish: training a cat to do anything that it didn’t want to do.
Acoustic Kitty was different from normal cats in a number of ways. It had an antenna running through its tail, a microphone in its ear canal, and battery packs under its fur. This pet of the CIA was also worth around 20 million taxpayer dollars. But, just like other cats, Acoustic Kitty was prone to willfulness and distraction and was hit by a taxi while scrounging for food on its first trip out of the lab.
At the time, the CIA had struggled mightily with figuring out how to pack this cybernetic feline spy with listening equipment that would remain operational for extended periods of time while staying inconspicuous. These days, however, any cat could easily be bugged without the need for surgery.
So the next time you see your kitty staring off into space, keep in mind that it may well be receiving new marching orders from its masters in Langley.
3 Scavenging For Intel
A vulture’s life is never easy. Perpetually hungry and forbidden from experiencing the thrill of making their own kills, these flying garbage collectors have to put up with a lot just to make ends meet. But some vultures have to put up with more than others, including the indignity of being unjustly accused of spying for foreign powers.
For one vulture in the Middle East, things were just starting to look up. Having been rescued from the Catalonia region of Spain, it had been brought to Israel for a little R & R.
Then it made the fateful mistake of veering into enemy territory after being released from Tel Aviv University to roam the skies as a free bird once more. Spying the transmitter on its tail, Lebanese locals downed the woeful bird, praising their skillful capture of an obvious Israeli secret agent.
After the vulture refused to give up intel on its superiors in Mossad, Lebanese officials reportedly released the disgruntled scavenger to resume the pursuit of its carrion-pecking proclivities. But, having learned its lesson, this unlucky vulture certainly won’t be visiting Lebanon again anytime soon.
2 Pigeon Photographers
Pigeons are undeniably skilled at carrying messages. Small, inconspicuous, and equipped with an incredibly accurate homing instinct, these canny birds have been used for centuries to swiftly carry messages across long distances. But around the turn of the 20th century, people started employing the services of pigeons for an altogether different task: photography.
It all started when an amateur pigeon fanatic decided to strap a camera to one of his birds to learn its usual route. Sniffing a potentially winning idea, the German military began equipping pigeons with cameras as part of their World War I espionage program. Like many other great German ideas, the CIA adopted pigeon photography as an accepted practice after World War II and thousands of classified pictures were snapped on the wing.
But please, don’t try this at home. Strapping your GoPro to a neighborhood pigeon will more than likely just lose you a camera and earn you the ire of the entire flock.
1 A Dead Rat Tells No Tales
Rats are disgusting enough already without human intervention. Hairy and beady-eyed, these ancestral carriers of disease scurry through the shadows with enough menace to cause housewives to leap onto tables with fright. Yet agents of the CIA were able to overcome their aversion to these critters so successfully that they even became capable of putting the corpses of dead rats to good use.
Painted with Tabasco sauce to repel predators, these unresisting rodents were gutted and filled with top secret messages for other agents to find. The average person’s loathing of these creatures served as the CIA’s insurance against the discovery of their rat couriers.
And from now on, when you happen across a dead rat on the side of the road, you have yet another reason not to pick it up. You can never know if there might be information inside that’s not meant for civilian eyes.
Samuel is a freelance writer and inquirer into the unknown. By rejecting the authority of conventional belief systems while grounding his perspectives in the core of human experience, he manifests content that dissolves barriers between perception and comprehension. Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelpopejoy