Fascinating piece by Tom Vanderbilt about how the CIA trained all sorts of animals to help in the Spy vs. Spy Cold War games. BF Skinner wasn’t just useful for training orcas:
While Pavlov plays a part in our story—“I have a saying in the training business,” Bailey says, “Pavlov is always on your shoulder”—the real inspiration is B.F. Skinner, the Harvard University psychologist who was, in the middle of the 20th century, the most cited scholar of the human mind after Freud. Skinner popularized “operant conditioning,” a practice based less on primal reflex responses and more on getting animals (including humans) to do things voluntarily, based on cues in the environment. When “behavior is followed by a consequence,” Skinner wrote, “the nature of the consequence modifies the organism’s tendency to repeat the behavior in the future.” In his famous operant-conditioning chamber, or “box,” an animal learns to associate an action with a reward. He favored pigeons, which received food for pecking at certain buttons.
During World War II, Skinner received defense funding to research a pigeon-based homing device for missiles. (The birds would be housed in the nose cone; their pecking would activate steering engines.) It was never deployed, but the project captured the imagination of two of his graduate students, Keller Breland and his wife, Marian. They left Skinner’s lab in 1947 and went into business in Minnesota as Animal Behavior Enterprises, or ABE. Their main client was General Mills, for whom they trained chickens and other animals for shows advertising General Mills feed at county fairs.
Their business gradually expanded, to zoos and theme parks and appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “Wild Kingdom.” They trained a slew of animals for TV commercials, including Buck Bunny, the coin-depositing rabbit protagonist of a Coast Federal Savings Bank commercial that set a record for repeat airings over two decades. In 1955, in their new home of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Brelands opened the I.Q. Zoo, where visitors would pay, in essence, to watch Skinnerian conditioning in action—even if in the form of basketball-playing raccoons.
The I.Q. Zoo was both a tourist attraction and a proving ground for systems of operant conditioning. The Brelands didn’t just become America’s pre-eminent commercial animal trainers, they also published their observations in scholarly journals like American Psychologist. Everyone from Walt Disney to Florida’s Marineland wanted their advice. It is thus little surprise that they were invited to the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, California, to address a new Navy program on the training of marine mammals for defense work, headed by Bob Bailey. The fact that China Lake, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, has neither water nor marine mammals is the sort of detail that does not seem out of place in a story like this.
It’s an interesting window into the gain-any-advantage-possible-no-matter-how-nutty mindset that prevailed in a world that seemed always to be on the precipice. I doubt the NSA, in an age where it seems capable of spying on just about everyone and anything, these days feels much need for animal operatives.