The Cold War made people do crazy things. The United States government was so desperate to defeat communism that it threw money at any half-baked scheme that would give Americans an advantage over the Soviet menace.
Exhibit A: “Project Acoustic Kitty,” a top-secret CIA research program that tested whether housecats could be used to spy on Soviet operatives. If that sounds like the plot of a bad movie from 1966, it was (with a dog instead of a cat). But it was also a real thing and we have the heavily redacted CIA documents to prove it.
The $20 Million Cat
In the 1970s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” a badly injured test pilot was rebuilt with mechanical parts and transformed into a cyborg superhero. The CIA had a similar idea back in the 1960s, except they wanted to create a cyborg superspy out of a cat.
The CIA’s Office of Technical Research and Office of Research and Development spent five years and an estimated $20 million on “Project Acoustic Kitty,” according to Mental Floss. The high price tag came from the high degree of technical difficulty. In an era before microchips and digital devices, the CIA scientists had to figure out how to discreetly equip a cat with a microphone, antenna, transmitter and battery.
In the end, a 3/4-inch (2-centimeter) transmitter was implanted at the base of the cat’s skull, a microphone was stitched into its ear canal, and an antenna was woven into the fur of the cat’s tail.
The results weren’t pretty. Victor Marchetti, a former CIA officer, told The Telegraph in 2001:
“A lot of money was spent. They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity.”
RIP Acoustic Kitty
The worst was yet to come. The CIA team (who didn’t seem to know much about feline behavior) spent months trying to train the cat to follow simple instructions. According to Marchetti, the cat would wander off when he was hungry, so they tried implanting another wire to override his snacking sense.
Miraculously, the training seemed to be working, and the CIA was satisfied that Acoustic Kitty was ready for a field test.
It was your typical spy-movie setup. The CIA guys pulled up to a park in an unmarked van. They slid open the door and gave their feline operative his mission: Slink over to those two guys on the bench and eavesdrop on their conversation. It didn’t quite go as planned.
“They put him out of the van, and a taxi comes and runs him over,” said Marchetti. “There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead!”
Not only did the poor Frankenstein cat lose the last of its nine lives, but “Project Acoustic Kitty” was also killed. In redacted CIA documents, the agency was surprisingly upbeat about the $20 million flop.
The authors of the report said it was “a remarkable scientific achievement” to learn that “cats can indeed be trained to move short distances,” and they lauded the CIA scientists for their “pioneering” work. But in the end, the CIA concluded that given the “environmental and security factors in using this technique in a foreign situation… it would not be practical.”