The CIA’s Most Highly-Trained Spies Weren’t Even Human

As a former trainer reveals, the U.S. government deployed nonhuman operatives—ravens, pigeons, even cats—to spy on cold war adversaries

(Dan Winters)
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During World War II, Skinner received defense funding to research a pigeon-based homing device for missiles. (The birds would be housed in the nose cone; their pecking would activate steering engines.) It was never deployed, but the project captured the imagination of two of his graduate students, Keller Breland and his wife, Marian. They left Skinner’s lab in 1947 and went into business in Minnesota as Animal Behavior Enterprises, or ABE. Their main client was General Mills, for whom they trained chickens and other animals for shows advertising General Mills feed at county fairs.

Their business gradually expanded, to zoos and theme parks and appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “Wild Kingdom.” They trained a slew of animals for TV commercials, including Buck Bunny, the coin-depositing rabbit protagonist of a Coast Federal Savings Bank commercial that set a record for repeat airings over two decades. In 1955, in their new home of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Brelands opened the I.Q. Zoo, where visitors would pay, in essence, to watch Skinnerian conditioning in action—even if in the form of basketball-playing raccoons.

The I.Q. Zoo was both a tourist attraction and a proving ground for systems of operant conditioning. The Brelands didn’t just become America’s pre-eminent commercial animal trainers, they also published their observations in scholarly journals like American Psychologist. Everyone from Walt Disney to Florida’s Marineland wanted their advice. It is thus little surprise that they were invited to the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, California, to address a new Navy program on the training of marine mammals for defense work, headed by Bob Bailey. The fact that China Lake, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, has neither water nor marine mammals is the sort of detail that does not seem out of place in a story like this.


Bailey’s tenure at China Lake was not his first stint in the desert. As an undergraduate at UCLA in the 1950s, he was hired by the School of Medicine to collect and photograph animals. In his long hours laying traps for kangaroo rats out near Palmdale, he noticed a patch of alfalfa.

“Alfalfa in the middle of nowhere attracts rabbits,” he says. “Any time you have rabbits out in the middle of the Mojave, you’re going to have coyotes.” He found a den nearby and began to notice that the coyotes, upon setting out, would head toward one of two fields. Curious to see if he could condition their behavior, he began placing dead rabbits along the paths he wanted the coyotes to choose. After some months he found that 85 percent of the time, he could get the coyotes to choose the path he designated. He then began tying white strips of cloth near the rabbits. Soon, those white strips alone were enough to direct the coyotes. “It was me,” Bailey says. “That was just me.”

As he earned his bachelor of science degree, he became a kind of part-time animal-behavior boffin. After a brief stint in the Army, with the 525 Military Intelligence Brigade, he found himself back at UCLA, employed as a researcher at the medical school. One day he noticed a flier advertising for a director of training of the Navy’s new dolphin program, which would develop methods of training marine mammals to perform tasks ranging from detecting and clearing mines to retrieving tools. He applied for the job and eventually got it. Any number of scholars were brought out to consult on the program—people like Gregory Bateson, the English anthropologist who was once married to Margaret Mead, and, of course, the Brelands. As Bailey conducted his research, including a quasi-covert training program involving search and detection tasks in the open ocean, he grew increasingly disenchanted with research directives coming from China Lake that focused more on psychology than on intelligence work. “I could see very quickly where these animals would be really useful,” he says, “and yet people who were involved, we would joke, wanted to ‘talk to the dolphins.’”

In 1965, Bailey agreed to join the Brelands and Animal Behavior Enterprises in Hot Springs. Suddenly he found himself in the entertainment business. “I was designing sets, building sets, had to learn how to write a show script,” he says. Training animals “was the easy part.” By now, ABE had more than 50 employees and a full-blown systematic approach to animal training. “We had file drawers full of training protocols,” Bailey says. “You want a macaw to ride a bicycle?” The trainer would go to the front office, ask a secretary for the bicycle-riding protocols. “They’d ask: Was it for cockatoos or macaws? It’s different.”

That June, Keller Breland died of a heart attack at the age of 50, and the day-to-day running of the business largely fell to Bailey. More than a decade later, he and Marian married. “Marian was a softhearted person,” he says. (She died in 2001.) “Business is pretty hard-nosed.”

While at ABE, Bailey designed the Bird Brain, which housed a chicken that would appear to engage the patron in a game of tick-tack-toe. (In reality, a circuit board chose the chicken’s squares; when the chicken retired to its “thinkin’ booth” during play, it was pressing a button in response to a light triggered by the human’s moves.) The game was immensely popular (if not without criticism, Bailey says, by the fledgling People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), though it was rigged so the human—even B.F. Skinner himself—never won. “We built three pieces of equipment where the chicken could lose,” Bailey says. “It didn’t improve our income at all.”


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