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Science-fiction turns real: Genetically engineering animals for war

In the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited an unusual field agent: a cat. In an hour-long procedure, a veterinary surgeon transformed the furry feline into an elite spy, implanting a microphone in her ear canal and a small radio transmitter at the base of her skull, and weaving a thin wire antenna into her long gray-and-white fur. This was Operation Acoustic Kitty, a top-secret plan to turn a cat into a living, walking surveillance machine. The leaders of the project hoped that by training the feline to go sit near foreign officials, they could eavesdrop on private conversations.

The problem was that cats are not especially trainable — they don’t have the same deep-seated desire to please a human master that dogs do — and the agency’s robo-cat didn’t seem terribly interested in national security. For its first official test, CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench. Instead, the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi. The program was abandoned; as a heavily redacted CIA memo from the time delicately phrased it, “Our final examination of trained cats ... convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.” (Those specialized needs, one assumes, include a decidedly unflattened feline.)

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