The story of the whale wearing a GoPro that might be some kind of Russian surveillance agent is pretty wild, but it’s not even close to the first time governments have turned to animals for surveillance purposes. In the Cold War, the CIA tried to train a cat to infiltrate the Soviet Embassy in DC – sadly, they did not name it Felis Leiter. Plus: the audio phenomenon known as the “cocktail party effect” is not just for humans. Dogs have it too! Which means dogs should come to cocktail parties way more often.
That Time the CIA Bugged a Cat to Spy on the Soviets (The Atlantic)
The ‘Russian spy whale’ has plenty of historical company (Financial Times)
Dogs can tune out noise, just like people at cocktail parties (National Geographic)
We at Cool Weird Awesome are used to unexpected stories, but even we’re doing doubletakes over the whale wearing a GoPro that might be some kind of Russian surveillance agent, one that, depending on the news accounts you read, is doing whatever whales do to request asylum.
The world is still unpacking this apparent case of aquatic espionage, but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.
It’s not even close to the first time governments have turned to animals for surveillance purposes.
A German inventor equipped pigeons with little surveillance cameras back in 1908!
Ravens, seals, bats, moose and more have all been used either to spy on the other side or in some cases as the bearers of weapons.
Since we’re talking about Russia, it’s a good time to remember this story from the Cold War, when American spies tried to equip an animal to spy on the Soviet embassy in DC.
They implanted microphones and radio transmitters in the creatures with the hopes they’d be able to infiltrate the compound and send back audio of whatever was going on in there.
They spent $10 million on the effort and at least some elements within the CIA were optimistic this would yield some important and useful information.
The animal they equipped with the mics and radios was a cat.
And, unfortunately, when they let the cat loose into the world to begin serving on the front lines of the Cold War, it ran not into the Soviet Embassy but into traffic.
That was the end of that.
A CIA report later concluded that it “would not be practical” to continue the project known as Acoustic Kitty.
Which is a shame, because I just came up with the name for a Cold War-era spy cat.
They should have given it a cat-themed takeoff on the name of James Bond’s CIA contact: Felis Leiter.
Oh man, I did an entire episode just to deliver that joke.
One last bit of animal news for today – it’s about what’s called the “cocktail party effect” – that phenomenon where our ears and brains can still detect our names even when we’re in a noisy situation.
Well, researchers at the University of Maryland have determined that dogs also have this ability.
Even when they hear their names said by unfamiliar voices, and even when the names were said at a lower volume than other sounds in the environment.
Which I hope means people will bring their dogs to cocktail parties way more often.