Egyptian police recently detained a stork on suspicion of spying, going so far as placing the bird in police custody. A man fishing in the Nile River in Qena, about 280 miles south-east of Cairo, spotted the stork and captured it, after seeing that it had been outfitted with some kind of electronic device, says Sky News.
Ayman Abdallah, the head of veterinary services in Qena, was called in and identified the device as most likely a wildlife tracker that French scientists were using to trace the stork’s migratory patterns and why these have been disrupted. Pollution, a rise in the number of hunters (armed with technology themselves to more easily target animals) and climate change have been some factors mentioned, but study of the birds’ flight patterns is essential.
As the stock’s device had ceased to work after it left France, Abdallah said that the bird had been “absolv[ed] of being a spy” but has to remain in policy custody until state prosecutors agree to release it.
The capture of the stork and the accusations against it of espionage qualify as something of an overreaction. As Sky News points out, commentators are framing the report about the spying stork as a sign of how,”with turmoil gripping Egypt following the military coup that overthrew President Mohammad Morsi, authorities and citizens remain on high alert.”
Even in a high-tech age, people have turned again and again to animals for military purposes, from dogs to sniff out bombs to dolphins to detect underwater mines. Besides the stork, here are five other animals who have been, quite unwillingly, used for actual acts of espionage or suspected of being used for such:
A vulture with a GPS tracker captured in western Sudan in 2011 was also thought to be carrying out surveillance activities for Israel. The bird wore tags that said Tel Aviv University and the Israel Nature Service (most likely the institutions the scientists who were tracking the vulture worked at?).
Allied forces used pigeons to fly key items of intelligence out of France in World War II. After a German engineer trained a pigeon to carry a camera and take aerial photographs, the Germany military sought to use pigeons outfitted with cameras for spying purposes.
In 2007, Chinese scientists went a step further and said they had implanted micro-electrodes in a pigeon’s brain that made it possible to tell the bird to fly up or down.
Documents declassified in 2011 revealed that in the 1960s, the C.I.A. attempted operation “Acoustic Kitty” in which microphones and transmitters were surgically inserted into cats, with the plan to use them to eavesdrop. Sadly, the first wired-up cat was run over by a taxi when released to eavesdrop on two people. Perhaps the cat was disoriented after having all those devices implanted in it?
More recently, scientists have found a less intrusive way to take advantage of cats’ mobility, analyzing their fur to detect crucial clues to solve crimes.
In a story recalling the spying pigeons, NBC news reported in 2007 that, according to an official report from the Islamic Republic News Agency, police had “arrested” 14 squirrels on charges of espionage. A similar story surfaced in 2008 regarding “spy pigeons” found near a nuclear facility in Iran.
A series of shark attacks on Egypt’s Mediterranean Coast in 2010 led to claims that “GPS-controlled sharks” sent by Israeli security services had infiltrated Sinai waters. That might sound farfetched but, as Wired noted, DARPA has also attempted to implant electrodes into sharks.
Along with the potential for mistreatment of wild animals who have been innocently captured and in some cases, had surgical procedures performed on them, these accounts of animal espionage underscore how wars and civil conflicts are undermining the protection and preservation of wildlife in northern Africa and Middle East.