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Lair of the Beasts: When Animals Go Into Battle
Creatures and Warfare
By Nick Redfern
June 29, 2013
This weekend, I thought I’d share with you something very strange. Namely, the way in which military agencies have secretly used animals in bizarre but intriguing projects designed to defeat hostile, enemy nations. They sound too weird to be true. Actually and incredibly, they’re not!
In 1999, Britain’s intelligence-gathering agency, MI5, declassified into the public domain long-classified papers expressing grave concern that, at the height of the Second World War, Hitler and his cohorts were planning on taking the ingenious step of employing pigeons to ferry top secret data to Nazi spies that were hiding out in Britain.
According to the released files, MI5 had determined that the birds were being bred for espionage work in Holland and France. And that furthermore, the pigeon agents - as they were amusingly dubbed by the British Government - were believed to have bases in Paris, Lille, Angers and Cherbourg. No word, however, if they were equipped with their very own little runways.
With this incredible, yet potentially extremely catastrophic, information in hand, MI5 developed an ingenious plan: they chose to turn the tables on Hitler by training an elite band of falcons to eliminate the pesky pigeon problem. Indeed, what was referred to as a special falconry unit was established - with the falcons specifically taught to intercept and kill Hitler’s feathered friends.
The available evidence would seem to suggest that the operation was a success. It is decidedly curious, however, that, with so much data pertaining to straightforward aerial battles between the Allies and the Nazis having been in the public domain for decades, we had to wait until 1999 to learn the facts surrounding one of the stranger sky-based conflicts of the Second World War. But, it wasn’t just the British military that was looking to utilize pigeons in warfare.
It seems that for certain factions of the U.S. official infrastructure of the Second World War, humans were not always seen as being up for the fraught task of defeating the Axis powers. So, birds were chosen instead. And, just like the Nazis, they chose pigeons.
The bird-brained idea was born out of the undeniably alternative mind of a man named Burrhus Frederic Skinner, an inventor, author, and psychologist, and, from 1958 to 1974, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
The wholly unimaginatively named Project Pigeon revolved around strapping one of the government’s feathered pals into a guided missile and teaching it to constantly peck on the part of the screen that specifically displayed imagery of the target to be destroyed, courtesy of a front-loaded camera that was filming the ground.
In other words, this was a case of steering the missile to its intended target via the tapping of the pigeon’s beak, instead of via ground control. It all looked so good and reasonable when discussed in round-table format. It worked far less well in reality, however, despite getting a fair-sized budget from the National Defense Research Committee.
The pigeons, seemingly, could not keep their minds on the job, or the target, and so the result was nothing less than missiles flying wildly and chaotically above the desert surface of some of Uncle Sam’s most classified test-ranges, with birds at the controls that, history has shown, exhibited nothing beyond a high degree of attention deficit disorder.
At least, they were at the controls until their lack of dedication to the task in hand (or in beak) resulted in the fortunately unarmed missiles slamming into the ground and the pigeons turned into piles of charred-feathers.
And there you have it: a couple of strange, and previously classified, programs, demonstrating how warfare and the animal kingdom have crossed paths in very weird ways.
Nick Redfern is the author of many books on strange creatures, including Monster Diary, There’s something in the Woods, and Wildman.