Ridiculous History: The Use of Animals in Espionage

Humans employing animals in espionage? Shhhhh... Vdorse/Ysbrand Cosijn/Getty Images

Just off the coast of the Gaza Strip a spy lurks under water, swimming easily among the sea's inhabitants despite all the surveillance gear. As the spy ranges ever closer to the objective, an aquatic camera activates and begins transmitting images that analysts will study down to the pixel.

The mission is proceeding according to plan until armed divers suddenly appear under the waves. Within weeks, the spy's identity is revealed in headlines that travel the globe: "Hamas 'seizes Israeli spy dolphin' off Gaza."

Yes, spy dolphin.

In August 2015, Hamas officials alleged a dolphin wearing spy gear — including an underwater camera — was working as an Israeli Army spy when it was captured off the Gaza coast. Hamas, the Islamist political party, isn't the first to make such claims. In 2010, Egyptian officials alleged that a series of shark attacks in the Red Sea were the result of an Israeli government plot. And in 2012, residents of Turkey found a dead bird wearing what they believed to be Israeli spy equipment.

These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but there are several well-documented examples of animals being trained as military operatives and spies. During the 1940s, psychologist B.F. Skinner famously trained pigeons to track targets and steer missiles. The Cold War era ushered in ravens that could eavesdrop on sensitive conversations, dolphins that could film secret military training exercises and insects that could detect intruders. There were even reports that the U.S. implanted a listening device in a cat and conditioned it to tune in to certain people's voices, presumably those having high-level political conversations.

Deploying Dolphins

"The more animals they have available, the more likely an espionage agency would have success in obtaining their desired information," says Bryan Bailey, an animal behaviorist and author who was a trainer for the U.S. Navy's dolphin and sea lion projects.While in the Navy, Bailey was a member of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), an elite bomb disposal team, where he supervised a top secret marine mammal program.

Sgt. Andrew Garrett watches a bottlenose dolphin named K-Dog, from Commander Task Unit, jump out of the water on March 18, 2003, at sea in the Arabian Gulf. The unit comprised special mine clearing teams from the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S.
rien Aho/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

"[The program] utilized dolphins to disable combatant enemy swimmers and divers," says Bailey. "Utilizing their echolocation sonar, the dolphins we trained to detect enemy swimmers and divers that may be attempting to place mines on the bottom of U.S. Naval ships, destroy piers and perform beach reconnaissance or landings." Once detected, an explosive device that could inject compressed air into the body of an enemy swimmer, was placed on the dolphin's head. The armed dolphins would then be dolphin was released to attack the enemy.

It's one thing to train a dolphin, but what about a cat, bird or other creature not known for taking direction?

"All animals respond to conditioning in pretty much the same way," says Jennifer Hancock, a former dolphin trainer who has used a variety of training methods to gain specific behaviors from animals of many species. "The caveat is, the animal has to be physically capable of doing the behavior requested, and instinctually inclined to do so. A bird isn't any easier or harder to train than any other animal. In fact, really social birds are very easy to train. If you know what you are doing, you can even train cats."

What makes an animal a good candidate for training, adds Hancock, is the animal's inherent sociability. Social animals, like dolphins and dogs, are typically easier to train because they desire a relationship with the trainer and are already attuned to social cues.

"Animals that are less social are harder to work with," Hancock says, "The animal has to instinctively want relationships, and some animals don't. You can't train a fish to climb a tree."

Accurate, Fast, Invisible

Trainers may not be able to get a fish to climb a tree, but they can train dogs to parachute and rappel. In fact, U.S. Special Operations soldiers have been known to deploy with Belgian Malinois dogs trained to serve a variety of functions, from detecting explosives to attacking combatants. In 2013, a Belgian Malinois was taken hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan and accused of being a spy.

"Dogs would be the obvious choice in that they would be much easier to train," Bailey says. "But unless the dog's only mission is eavesdrop on secret conversations occurring in parks or public settings, anything else would have to be an 'inside' job [in order] to overcome the obvious physical and sometimes cultural obstacles."

However, if you place a well-trained animal in its natural environment, amazing things can happen. When Bailey worked with dolphins who had been coached to detect, seek and destroy enemy targets, the animals' performances were nothing short of impressive.

"It was an extremely effective utilization of an animal's natural abilities to perform a task that would have been very difficult for a human to replicate," Bailey says. "The dolphins were incredibly accurate in the use of their echolocation capabilities, unbelievably fast, and virtually invisible in their attacks. This made their utilization a powerful asset to the security of our maritime waters, ships, installations and personnel."

Maybe a camera-wearing dolphin caught swimming in the Mediterranean isn't so far-fetched after all.