The Thing is With Steve Canavan - January 12, 2017

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I’m 50 years behind the times with this one so forgive me if you’re already aware, but I discovered something rather marvellous the other day - mainly that, with the Cold War at its height, the American government spent £20m training a cat to be a spy.

For the benefit of younger readers, I think it’s important that I first explain what the Cold War was. It was, kids, an intense decade-long battle between Alaska and the North Pole, which the Alaskans won in controversial fashion when a single bomb flattened more than 500 igloos and tragically killed a passing polar bear. A devastated North Pole surrendered soon afterwards. (Feel free to tell your history teacher tomorrow - I guarantee they’ll be impressed).

Now the teenagers have lost interest, put down the paper and started texting their mates, on with the real tale…

With the Cold War raging and the world still trembling after the Cuban Missile Crisis came within a whisker of sparking World War Three, and very probably the end of mankind as we know it, the Americans were determined to steal a march on their rivals.

Thus in the mid-1960s the greatest nation on earth came up with this plan - to implant a microphone into a cat and then train it to wander into places like the Kremlin and casually stand in a corner eating some Whiskas while ear-wigging the Russian prime-minister’s latest plan for world domination.

Now I have a lot of respect for the US. It’s a country where all the residents have a great sense of humour, stay in fit and healthy shape, and are very sensible when electing presidents.

But train a cat? Really?

I own a moggy, Percy, and I can say with absolute certainty that I could spend the next 10 years attempting to train him to run to the garden gate and back and he would never ever do anything other than gaze at me with a look on his face that said, ‘are you for real mate?’, before padding up the stairs to lie for 12 hours in his favourite spot under the radiator in the back bedroom.

Anyone who owns a cat knows that they are the moodiest, meanest, most aloof, stubborn, stuck-up creatures on the planet, behind only George Osborne.

However, the US was desperate and determined to make it work, so it went ahead with a project it named Acoustic Kitty.

First a vet carried out a lengthy and complicated operation, planting a microphone in the animal’s ear canal, a small radio transmitter at the base of its skull and a thin wire into its fur. (Given that my Percy takes a small chunk of flesh out of my upper arm every time I attempt to feed him a flea tablet, I’d can only assume the cat the Americans used was heavily sedated).

The end result was that a poor moggy at a top-secret army base somewhere in the US essentially became a walking radio, presumably handy if its owner wanted to tune into Chris Evans’ breakfast show.

The CIA spent several years training the cat ahead of its first mission - to eavesdrop on two men it suspected of being Soviet spies outside the Russian embassy in Washington.

An American agent carefully got close to the rendevous point and released the cat … which promptly wandered across the nearest road and was run over by a taxi, dying instantly.

The whole multi-million pound project was cancelled in 1967, with the CIA concluding that “the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that for our intelligent purposes it would not be practical” - or put another way “we forgot cats aren’t very good at crossing main roads”.

All of the above only came out relatively recently when a whole bundle of CIA documents were declassified.

Wonderfully bonkers and proof that truth sometimes is stranger than fiction.

A born journalist and a 
great loss

I must admit that until earlier this week, much to my shame, I had never heard of Clare Hollingworth.

Then, on Tuesday, at the age of 105, she died and the story of her life emerged.

In the 1930s and 40s, when despite Emmeline Pankhurst’s best efforts most woman were forced to spend their time scrubbing the front doorstep and making their husband’s tea, Mrs Hollingworth was a pioneering journalist.

She etched her name into folklore in 1939 when, while working in Europe for the Daily Telegraph, she spotted German forces amassing on the Polish border and ran an exclusive in the next day’s paper predicting an invasion. Within 72 hours she was proved correct and the Second World War erupted shortly after.

It rather puts into perspective my biggest scoop, which came in 2005 when I correctly stated that Blackpool FC were to get a new washing machine at their training ground.

Mrs Hollingworth was clearly an incredible lady and according to those who knew her best, had, until very recently, her passport and bag packed, “ready to go for the next breaking news story”.

Clearly a born journalist, and a sad loss.