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Acoustic Kitty: The Failure of Cat Spies

Updated on December 12, 2019
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Pilar has bachelor's degrees in animal science and English, as well as a master's in education.


Project “Acoustic Kitty”: There have been worse ideas

Whoever came up with the blueprint for the CIA’s “Acoustic Kitty” project evidently never owned a cat.

If he or she had, this individual would know that cats often do as they please and convincing one to follow commands would be a near impossible task, especially when released into the great, exciting outdoors, chock full of distractors.

And since this unreliable, independently-minded cat would be affixed with transmitting devices and held accountable for collecting and delivering top-secret recordings of various Soviet representatives, these feline tendencies, while normally simply aggravating, become downright catastrophic.

Yet, someone somewhere, with the right connections, dreamed up this concept and somewhere someone else (also obviously not a cat owner) signed off on it, giving it the green light go-ahead. And so project “Acoustic Kitty” was begun.

The Kitty

To be fair, there are a great many characteristics in the cat that would--in theory--make it an excellent spy. It has great night vision, excellent hearing, superb smell, fine-tuned whiskers, perceptive paws, not to mention razor-sharp claws, all packed into an incredibly agile and deftly maneuvering body.

It would be fairly difficult for a evil-minded Soviet to avoid a cat—or a criminal of any sort for that matter--if the cat wanted to find him.


Great Night Vision

Who needs night goggles? Cats see well in almost complete darkness due to their pupils’ ability to expand to 90% of their total eye area and let in even the smallest amounts of light.

Felines inarguably have the one-up on humans once the sun goes down, who are blind in surroundings several times brighter than those utilized by furry prowlers.

Cats’ daytime sight is inferior to ours, but before the criminally-inclined adjust their schedules they should know that cats more than compensate for this minor flaw with their superior, broader peripheral views and unrivaled motion detecting abilities.

And when evil-doers skulk closer than 6 feet or further than 18, before or beyond the cat’s optimal optical range, there are several additional senses it can utilize to continue its surveillance.


Superb Smell

A cat smells approximately twelve times better than humans and easily distinguishes unique aromas which we cannot. For example, with a single sniff your cat senses the butter within the croissant you had for breakfast.

Oddly, the orange juice or mint tea you drink with it will cause your furry friend to vacate the premises, effective immediately; these are horrible aromas to a feline. But, rather ironically, things such as fragrant vomit or feces are simply interesting (though hopefully not exuded from your kitchen or breakfast table) and will not cause a cat to bolt for the great outdoors.

Fine-tuned Whiskers and Discerning Paws

A cat’s whiskers and paws together make up its sense of touch. Whiskers, or tactile hairs, detect the most minimal of shifts in air currents. They also enable cats to successfully travel through small spaces, avoiding obstacles, and around potentially harmful objects, such as an open flame, unscathed.

Also useful, if a curious cat becomes too curious and a whisker or two is sacrificed during neighborhood scouring, they will regenerate.

Although the pads of the cat paw are thick they remain sensitive to heat and cold as well as vibration and other stimuli. In fact, when Oklahoma was hit by an earthquake in 2011, many Springfield residents claimed they witnessed strange behaviors in their pet cats before any recognizable tremors began, as if they could already sense it coming.


Excellent Hearing

A cat can detect sound frequencies from 45 to 64,000 Hz. This is better than the dogs’ 67 to 45,000 Hz, and of course, far superior to the human range of 64 to 23,000 Hz.

Cats hear both low and high pitched sounds to which we are completely deaf. We could creep along believing we are being quiet as a mouse and be emitting several tell-tale thuds, booms, and creaks; which, to a cat, would be about as quiet as a mouse, which with its superior detecting mechanisms, is not really so quiet after all.

Further, the origins of a noise are identifiable to cat even when entirely out of view; with ears that swivel a full 180 degrees a cat easily cues in on sounds in front of, behind, or next to it as close as 3 inches or as far as 3 feet away without moving its head.

Voice Recognition

In a Japanese study where scientists played recordings of both owners and strangers' voices, cats responded by moving their head and ears closer to the source of sound when it came from someone they were familiar with.

Their pupils also dilated, a sign of excitement, when an owner “spoke” to them.

Therefore cats differentiate one individual from another not only by sight, but also by sound; a very helpful trait when in the spy trade.


Razor Sharp Claws

Cat claws, retracted within the paw behind a layer of skin when not in use, extend to reveal sharp points honed to lethal perfection. Unlike the dog, cats have paws that rotate for optimal grasping; their claws aid this grip by sinking into surfaces that would otherwise prove difficult or impossible to cling to.

And, when combined with its sharp teeth, claws make the cat a fierce predator and formidable opponent if cornered. Just ask a bird. Or a dog.

An Agile and Deftly Maneuvering Body

While cats can jump vertical heights of over 5 feet (which is about 3.5 times their body length…the equivalent of an average 6 foot human bouncing 21 feet into the sky) and cling to whatever they land upon (thanks to those claws and paws), they are also well designed for an emergency landing from up above. The same muscles that help a cat jump help cushion it after a fall.

Cats are able to survive falling from insanely high altitudes: 90% of 132 cats brought to a NY emergency clinic after falling from high-rises survived; only 37% required emergency assistance. One cat was released two days after falling 32 stories onto concrete.

This is partially because a falling cat will not reach speeds of over 60mph (unfortunately, humans can reach 120mph speeds during their descent, a beyond lethal velocity). And, by extending their legs cats help slow down their descent yet further.

Cats also know which direction is down while suspended in midair and situate themselves so they land paw-first, which often entails airborne acrobatics. A few timely twists and turns before their plummet is complete and a nice bend of their legs upon impact (for shock absorption), and they then scurry away with minimal damage…or none at all. Who needs nine lives?

Unfortunately, this seeming invincibility is lost upon fat cats. Overweight felines have an impaired ability to successfully right themselves and are more prone to becoming injured or worse after a fall.


The CIA Project

Attempting to turn a cat into a living, breathing surveillance machine for the United States government sounds pretty ludicrous and even, perhaps, a bit amusing.

But the CIA did in fact attempt this feat in hopes of gathering information on the Soviets during the Cold War in the 1960s. And the reality of the Acoustic Kitty Project is anything but funny.

The only cat dispatched on an official practice eavesdropping mission was first surgically altered and implanted with millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. This took a full hour to accomplish—a microphone was installed in its ear, a radio transmitter affixed to its skull, batteries placed inside its stomach, and wire antenna woven into its tail.

Operatives systematically and repetitively tested the cat for years, tweaking “flaws” with more surgical manipulation. For example, when the cat wandered off during training sessions in search of food, a wire was inserted into it to interfere with the proper functioning of its biological hunger response.


The ultimate goal of the Acoustic Kitty Project was to get this cat to situate itself near foreign officials—particularly those associated with the Kremlin--and record their conversations, poised unobtrusively upon the ledge of a window, a bench, or even within a trashcan.

However, training the cat to obey commands was simply not something the expert CIA researchers could do. Or, perhaps because of its many surgeries, the cat simply lost the capacity to be trained. Either is plausible.

The cat, worth millions upon millions in money and resources, was eventually given its first practice mission outside in the real world. Its instructions were simple: locate and remain in the near vicinity of two individuals on a park bench, immersed in conversation. However, instead of targeting these individuals the cat meandered away.

It wandered into the road and directly into the path of a taxicab; after being hit it died on scene.

Some believe it would have died anyway, far before it's time, due to the foreign objects imbedded within its body.

After its death the CIA was forced to conclude the obvious: that the use of a super cat spy was simply not practical—for various environmental and security related reasons.

They could have saved a lot of time and money; they need only have asked the neighborhood cat lady for her opinion: even under ideal circumstances it is likely the cat would not have cooperated anyway. And the Acoustic Kitty's circumstances were anything but ideal.


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