Declassified: America's animal spies and soldiers

From bionic insects to minesweeping dolphins, these are the animals working hard to keep Americans safe.

Fox Van Allen
Fox Van Allen is a Los Angeles-based writer for CBS Interactive covering technology, tech lifestyle and gaming topics for GameSpot, CNET, ZDNet and TechRepublic. He has previously worked as a news and feature writer for a number of other sites, including Techlicious, Tecca, WoW Insider (Joystiq) and Blizzard Watch. In his spare time, Fox is an amateur skydiver, retro gaming and arcade enthusiast, 8-bit pixel artist, podcaster and Twitch live streamer.
Fox Van Allen
1 of 16 Brien Aho/US Navy

Bottlenose mine sweepers

For decades, the US government has been training animals to keep us safe in times of both war and peace. It's amazing what these animals can do -- and how much science and technology are behind their missions.

Take, for example, the US Navy's Marine Mammal Program. The long-running program trains dolphins and other animals to perform aquatic tasks that human divers are unable to.

In this photo, a bottlenose dolphin wearing a locator beacon device leaps out of the water during a training exercise in the Persian Gulf. The animal is being trained to locate mines hiding in shipping lanes.

2 of 16 Science Photo Library/Corbis

Navy dolphin training

One of the Marine Mammal Program's dolphins is seen holding a bite plate in its mouth in this underwater training photograph.

In the field, these bite plates might contain surveillance equipment or a tethered line to be hooked onto an underwater object.

3 of 16 Mazen Mahdi/epa/Corbis

Sea lion sentries

Sea lions are a big part of the US Navy's Marine Mammal Program.

In this photo, a California sea lion named Jack salutes his handler following a 2014 training exercise in Manama, Bahrain. Sea lions are used by the Navy to recover important equipment from the ocean floor faster than human divers can.

4 of 16 Richard Herrmann/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Protective sharks

Though the US Navy Marine Mammal Program now focuses mainly on training sea lions and dolphins, sharks were once trained for naval use in swimmer protection missions.

5 of 16 The Lighthouse/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Cyborg insects

They could be America's smallest living spies: The Defense Advanced Research Laboratory (DARPA) has been conducting research into creating insect cyborgs for some time.

Scientists implant electronics into the creatures when they're in their larval stage. As the insects mature, the electronics become fully embedded and hidden.

The resulting cyborg insects can be easily tracked, making them useful for surveillance missions.

6 of 16 James L. Amos/Corbis

Bomb-sniffing bees

Bees, as scientists have learned, have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell. This is why DARPA has singled out honeybees for use in bomb-detection missions since 1999.

Scientists train bomb-detecting bees by exposing the insects to the scent of explosives as they feed on sugar water. When a honeybee encounters the same smell in the wild, it will instinctively raise its proboscis to try to feed as a Pavlovian response.

Small radio transmitters are used to track the location of the bees in the field. Digital cameras and specialized software, meanwhile, are trained to detect the waving of the probosces at a distance.

7 of 16 US Navy Marine Mammal Program

Dolphins and sea lions: Best of the best

The US Navy tested 19 different aquatic species as part of its Marine Mammal Program. Ultimately, it was decided that bottlenose dolphins and sea lions were best equipped for its underwater missions.

Dolphins are valuable to the Navy because of their highly evolved sonar. Sea lions, meanwhile, have tremendous underwater vision -- great for spotting enemy divers.

8 of 16 Mazen Mahdi/epa/Corbis

Sea lion scouts

As far as we know, the Navy doesn't train marine animals for attack missions. Animals are, however, recruited for defensive purposes.

Sea lions in the Navy's MK 6 team, for example, are trained to carry specialized handcuffs in their mouths. The lions can attach these tracking-enabled cuffs to underwater intruders when detected.

9 of 16 Mazen Mahdi/epa/Corbis

Sea lion rescuers

In its first ever successful recovery mission, a sea lion from the Marine Mammal Program's MK 5 team recovered an antisubmarine rocket from a depth of 180 feet.

Naval sea lions have also been trained to recover crash-test dummies from the sites of plane crashes.

10 of 16 Paul Souders/Corbis

Killer dolphins?

During the Vietnam War, rumors began circulating that the US Navy was training dolphins to kill enemy divers.

The Navy denies this, however, insisting its marine mammals have never been trained to attack humans.

11 of 16 US Navy Marine Mammal Program

The Navy's killer whales

Killer whales have been trained as part of the Navy's Marine Mammal Program as well.

The magnificent animals are prized for their ability to dive to extreme depths in colder waters.

12 of 16 US Navy Marine Mammal Program

Playing fetch with orcas

Naval trainers have been able to harness the orcas' underwater auditory sensitivity for use in object-recovery missions.

The whales are also adept at spotting mines with their sonar.

13 of 16 US Navy Marine Mammal Program

Beluga whale training exercise

The Navy has also experimented with using belugas, or white whales.

Here, a beluga marks an underwater training target during a Naval exercise.

14 of 16 Wavebreak Media LTD/Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

In which the CIA creates a bionic spy cat

A living, breathing cat seems like a highly unlikely (and perhaps highly unethical) place to embed a listening device. But that was exactly the goal of a 1960s experiment by the CIA called Operation Acoustic Kitty.

Now-declassified documents detail how, in an hour-long procedure, veterinarians implanted a microphone in a gray-and-white female cat's ear canal and a radio transmitter at the base of the cat's skull. A wire ran under the cat's fur, using its tail as an antenna.

CIA leaders planned to release the cat near the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., hoping it would pick up valuable data.

But things did not go as planned...

15 of 16 Michael Kloth/Corbis

Bionic spy cat, take 2

Shortly after the government built its bionic kitty, problems began to arise. Every time the cat got hungry, it would wander away from its surveillance targets to look for food.

Scientists "solved" this problem by putting the cat through more expensive surgery to eliminate its sense of hunger.

16 of 16 Michael Kloth/Corbis

The sad end to America's first bionic feline

After $20 million worth of training and surgery, the feline secret agent was finally sent out on its first official mission: Eavesdrop on two Soviets having a conversation on a park bench.

Sadly, however, she was never able to complete her mission. Shortly after being released by a CIA reconnaissance van, the cat was hit and killed by a taxi cab.

Project Acoustic Kitty was abandoned as a total loss in 1967, with a final report stating that it was not practical for live cats to be used as listening devices.

The CIA spent an estimated $20 million on the failed program -- the equivalent of $142 million today when you adjust for inflation.

More Galleries

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera
A houseplant

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera

20 Photos
Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

10 Photos
The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum
Samsung Galaxy S24

The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum

23 Photos
Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design
The Galaxy S24 Ultra in multiple colors

Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design

23 Photos
I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

34 Photos
17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About
Invitation for the Apple September iPhone 15 event

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About

18 Photos
AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

17 Photos