- Norwegian researchers believe a beluga whale they captured may be a Russian spy.
- Russia says it uses beluga whale for combat operations, and the US Navy has been open about training animals like dolphins and sea lions.
- Cats have even been trained for spying. Cats!
- Animal spying has also been the subject of conspiracy theories: Numerous countries have accused Israel of avian espionage, though the birds were just tracked for migration patterns.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Earlier in April, Norwegian marine researchers apprehended a beluga whale. It had been harassing fishers by headbutting their boats and gnawing at their nets, and the scientists were asked to look into it.
What they found was an aggressive whale wearing a harness with the words “Equipment St. Petersburg” stamped onto it. The harness had a spot that could fit a GoPro camera. The researchers believe the dolphin may be a Russian military asset.
“If this whale comes from Russia – and there is great reason to believe it – then it is not Russian scientists but rather the navy that has done this,” researcher Martin Biuw told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
If the beluga whale is really a Russian spy, it wouldn’t be the first time an animal was used for espionage. The United States has a history of training animals to gather intelligence, from cats to dolphins.
“We never found an animal we could not train,” Bob Bailey, a former animal trainer and Navy strategist, told Smithsonian magazine in 2013. “Never.”
The history of animals being used as spies, however, is also the subject of conspiracy theories. Israel has been baselessly accused of training everything from eagles and chameleons as spies.
Here are 14 animals that have been accused of espionage.
Russia denies that it uses whales as spies. They’re just for combat.
The chief reason the scientists at Norway’s Institute of Marine Research believe the beluga whale may be a Russian spy is because the harness didn’t resemble the kinds use for scientific research.
Marine biologist Audun Rikardsen told the BBC that Russia has a naval base in the region, and that they’re known to train domestic whales.
“A Russian colleague said they don’t do such experiments, but she knows the navy has caught belugas for some years and trained them – most likely it’s related to that,” he said.
Viktor Baranets, a Russian military colonel, told a Russian broadcaster that the country doesn’t use whales as spies, though he said they’re trained for war.
“We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don’t cover that up,” he said. “In Sevastopol (in Crimea) we have a centre for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analysing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, and attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships.”
Militaries of several countries have trained dolphins for reconnaissance.
Since the 1960s, the US Navy has used dolphins to find underwater mines and detect submarines. Russia has also trained dolphins for similar tasks, which has been a subject of recent tension with Ukraine.
In 2015, Hamas accused Israel of using a dolphin to spy on it, but the more likely explanation of that incident is that the animal simply had technology attached to it that tracked migration patterns.
The US Navy trains sea lions in similar ways.
Sea lions have excellent eyesight. And like dolphins, they are good at finding underwater mines and lost objects. The US Navy uses them to retrieve materials like unarmed mines for test reconnaissance missions, according to National Geographic.
The US pioneered using pigeons to spot enemy combatants.
Pigeons were used to pass messages between battalions World War I, according to “Beasts of War: The Militarization of Animals” by Jared Eglan. Further possibilities were dreamed up by B.F. Skinner, one of the founders of behavioural science, who proposed fitting them with homing devices that would allow them to steer missiles toward targets (it didn’t work).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the US military trained pigeons to fly over enemy territory and scope out potential ambushes, according to Smithsonian magazine. They were guided by laser pointers and trained to drop recording devices if they saw enemy troops. The program thwarted 45 potential ambushes, Bob Bailey, a former animal trainer for the US Navy, told the magazine. Unfortunately, though, there was no way to retrieve the pigeons if they didn’t see any enemies, Bailey said.
The US military has also used ravens for spying.
Bob Bailey also told Smithsonian magazine that ravens were used similarly to pigeons. They’re good at detecting patterns, so they could be used to spot enemy combatants.
“It operates alone, and it does very well alone,” he said. “These things could pick up weights, heavy packages, even file folders…. It was incredible to watch these ravens carry a load in their beaks that would have defeated an ordinary bird.”
The CIA’s most mysterious animal spying project involved cats.
In the 1960s, the CIA spent around $US10 million to surgically modify cats so that they could pass along audio recordings of what went on in Soviet embassies, according to “Beasts of War.” The program apparently didn’t work, because the cats would often wander off on their own, and operation Acoustic Kitty was canceled in 1967. Records about the program were destroyed in a fire in 1989.
The pentagon reportedly planned to turn sharks into spies with brain implants.
In 2016, the magazine New Scientist reported that the US Defence Department’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)planned to remotely control sharks by implanting electrodes into their brains. The sharks would be used to stealthily track underwater vessels, and would take advantage of the animals’ natural abilities to sense electrical gradients and follow chemical trails.
Scientists discussed the project at the 2006 Ocean Sciences Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s not clear if it ever turned into reality. A representative for DARPA didn’t immediately respond to INSIDER’s request for comment.
Iran accused 14 squirrels of spying for Israel.
Governments hostile to the state of Israel often lobby unsubstantiated stories about it using animals for espionage. The subject even has its own Wikipedia page, “Israel-related animal conspiracy theories.”
One such accusation came in 2007, when Iranian intelligence services apprehended 14 squirrels near a nuclear enrichment plant.
“In recent weeks, intelligence operatives have arrested 14 squirrels within Iran’s borders,” Iran’s state-sponsored news agency IRNA reported. “The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services.”
Former CIA agent and wildlife professor John Koprowski told NPR at the time that it was unlikely squirrels could be trained to gather useful intelligence.
Iran also accused chameleons of trying to foil nuclear plans.
In 2018, Hassan Firuzabadi, a senior military adviser to Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Western intelligence agencies tried to smuggle chameleons into the country. He said they could detect uranium mines.
“In their possessions were a variety of reptile desert species like lizards, chameleons,” he said at a press conference. “We found out that their skin attracts atomic waves and that they were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities.”
Zoologists have said that lizards are incapable of detecting uranium.
Saudi Arabian newspapers accused Israel of using a griffon vulture to spy on the country.
In 2011, a Saudi Arabian hunter captured a griffon vulture and found a “Tel Aviv University” tag on its leg. The story spread to local news outlets, who accused Israel of using the bird for spying.
A Saudi Arabian national security official dismissed the rumours and ordered that the bird be freed. The university uses GPS monitors to track griffon vultures as part of a project to re-introduce them to Israel’s mountain regions.
“These systems are fitted to birds and animals, including marine animals,” Prince Bandar bin Saud Al Saud said at the time. “Most countries use these system, including Saudi Arabia.”
A similar situation happened a year later, when the Sudanese government captured a griffon vulture tagged with an electronic device with a Hebrew name. Sudan said the vulture may be a spy, but an Israeli avian ecologist, Ohad Hatzofe, said it was tagged to track migration patterns.
“This is ordinary equipment that is used around the world to detect movement of wildlife,” Hatzofe told CNN. “I’m not an intelligence expert, but what would be learned from putting a camera onto a vulture? You cannot control it. It’s not a drone that you can send where you want. What would be the benefit of watching a vulture eat the insides of a dead camel?”
More recently, one faction in Yemen’s civil war has accused another of using a griffon vulture as a spy. And Syrian rebels accused a griffon vulture of spying for Israel, but ultimately returned the animal to Israeli authorities after deciding it wasn’t.
Sudan also accused Israel of using a pelican for spycraft.
Sudan accused a pelican of spying on behalf of Israel’s Mossad service under similar circumstances in the 1970s. The two countries don’t have formal diplomatic ties, which made it difficult for Israeli scientists to rescue a pelican in 2011 that was tagged with Israeli GPS technology and captured in Sudan.
Israel was once again accused of fowl play with a Bonelli’s eagle.
In 2011, Hezbollah combatants shot down a rare Bonelli’s eagle. Affiliated media agencies called it a spy for Israel.
As it turns out, the bird was just being studied by Prof. Yossi Leshem, an ornithologist at Tel Aviv University, who attached a GPS tracker to it.
“Unfortunately, this bird made the stupid mistake of moving to Lebanon, where it was shot down by one of Lebanon’s 400,000 hunters,” he told Jewish Journal.
In 2012, Turkey accused Israel of using birds as spies.
Another version of the conspiracy theory emerged in 2012, this time in Turkey. Villagers in southeastern Turkey found a common European bee-eater with a metal ring around its leg stamped “Israel,” according to the BBC. Local officials declared that the bird may have been used to spy on Turkey, but an official at the Turkish agriculture authority examined the animal and said the ring was simply a tool used to study the bird’s movements for migratory patterns.
Hezbollah accused a kestrel of spying for Israel.
In 2013, it was the kestrel’s turn to be accused of being a spying bird special for Israel. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah-controlled Al-Manar TV reported that a kestrel carried technology they believed belonged to Israeli intelligence services.
Earlier that year, a kestrel carrying a ring stamped with Tel Aviv University’s name was captured in Turkey and accused of being an Israeli spy as well. It was released after a medical examination determined it didn’t carry any technology that would send information back to Israel.
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