The use of animals in espionage has gone on for years now. The recent presence of yaks on the Indo-Sino border in Arunachal Pradesh has raised a debate that whether China was trying to use stray yaks for espionage activities. Let’s look at the use of animals used as spies across the world in the past years.

On August 31, a heard Yak crossed over from Chinese territory into Arunachal Pradesh. Amid the ongoing standoff with China in the Ladakh region, the Indian Army after seven days, in a big-hearted humanitarian gesture, handed over 13 yaks and four calves to its Chinese owners. The yaks remained under the care of the Indian Army for around a week.

This news brought pertinent questions with it- were these animals sent to India as spies fitted with spying equipment? Is China using stray yaks for espionage activities? The transgression by these animals came at a time when soldiers from both India and China are off to Ladakh.

Could these animals have been spies?

The fact that the yaks have been handed back to their Chinese owners means that the Indian Army has done its zeal to ensure that they were nothing more than innocent livestock. But concerns over animals used as spies still exist, as many countries in the past have used animals for espionage activities.

The first rule of spying is, don’t look like a spy. And, this might be a major reason that many countries use animals as spying agents. These undercover operations are not new and these measures date back decades in the 20th century.

The United States and Russia have always been vocal about their usage of animals used as spies. But they never reveal which animals they use for this purpose and also no information is put out by the countries regarding the training process of these animal spies. The U.S. is one country that is often talked about when it comes to training and using animals as military assets. From cats to dolphins, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a history of training animals to keep an eye on their enemies.

History of spies that weren’t humans:

Earlier in April last year, a beluga whale was found in Norwegian waters. The highly intelligent and friendly species was caught harassing Norwegian fishermen by headbutting their boats and gnawing at their nets, causing suspicion as it was wearing a harness with the words “Equipment St. Petersburg” stamped onto it.

The researchers believed that the whale may be a Russian military asset as the harness that was found from the animal’s neck was fitted with electronic equipment that was used to pick up signals, and intelligence. If it was true that the whale was used as a spy then there was a high chance that it was done by the Russian Navy.

The United States has a history of training animals to gather intelligence, from cats to dolphins. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has used dolphins to find underwater mines and detect submarines. Apart from dolphins, the U.S. Navy has also used sea lions to retrieve materials like unarmed mines for test reconnaissance missions, as sea lions are considered to have excellent eyesight.

When it comes to pigeons, Indians have a weird synchronicity level of remembering them as a messenger and with “kabootar jaa jaa jaa, kabootar jaa jaa jaa.” Pigeons are not only an integral part of Indian culture and society but have also been used to pass messages between battalions during World War I. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. military trained pigeons to fly over enemy territories and scope out potential ambushes. They were also trained to drop recording devices if they saw enemy troops.

(Photo credit: The Guardian)

The most mysterious animal spying project by America’s Central Intelligence Agency involved cats. One thing we know about cats is that they do whatever they want, and whenever they want. This could be a possible reason why the CIA thought they’d make excellent field operatives.

The CIA in the 1960s surgically modified cats so that they could pass along audio recordings of Soviet establishments in order to prowl vital Russian intelligence information. But the operation apparently didn’t work, as the cats would often wander off on their own, and operation Acoustic Kitty was cancelled in 1967.

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In 2016, reports emerged suggesting that the U.S. government had experimented with converting sharks into creatures that could be commanded to attack underwater assets and infrastructure. However, such operations always remain a mystery as no one really knows whether such operations by defence forces of the countries ever succeeded.

Not only the U.S. and Russia have been accused of using animals to spy on other countries in the past. In 2007, Iran accused Israel of deploying animals as spies. Iranian intelligence services caught 14 squirrels near a nuclear enrichment plant and suspected that the presence of squirrels was at Israel’s behest.

(Photo credit: Air1)

Voids in this technique of spying:

The use of animals in espionage has gone on for years now, whether it’s the use of messenger pigeons being used in World War I or dolphins used by countries like the US and Russia to carry underwater searches. Nobody really knows whether such operations of using animal spies succeed.

Also, let’s spare a thought for those innocent animals caught on the wrong side of the enemy lines. What happened to the animals who were caught by the enemies? Using animals to carry out military operations in favour of animal rights? These are a few questions that need to be answered by countries using such techniques to drive out information.