Something strange is happening in the Middle East. A string of animals have been arrested on the grounds of espionage, prompting many to wonder whether these Middle Eastern countries are suffering from mass paranoia.
In Iran, for instance, two pigeons were arrested in 2008 near a uranium enrichment plant. Officials said the birds were “bearing a blue-coated metal ring, with invisible strings,” but refused to provide more information. They suspected the rings and strings may have been used as a means for communications. No specifics were given about which country the birds pledged their allegiance to.
Suspicions of espionage among pigeons extended to India. A pigeon with numbers attached to its tail was detained by Indian police on the grounds that it was working with Pakistan. Officials x-rayed the bird and booked it as a “suspected spy,” reported The Guardian. “Nothing adverse has been found, but we have kept the bird in our custody,” senior police superintendent Rakesh Kaushal told sources.
But pigeons aren’t the only suspects for these paranoid countries. Back in 2007, Iran took 14 squirrels hostage, which officials believed were equipped with spyware from Israel. “The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services,” according to Iran’s state news agency.
In response, a former CIA agent told NPR, “No, it’s complete idiocy. You can’t use squirrels for espionage.” A couple of pigeons near Iran’s nuclear facility were detained the following year. Suspicions over pigeons were motivated by conspiracy theories that Israel has collected a zoo of technology which equips animals for its intelligence commissions.
Although these conspiracy theories have been refuted multiple times over, they continue to prevail. In 2010, an Egyptian marine biologist started a rumor that Israel had released a GPS equipped shark that killed a tourist and left others injured off the Sinai coast of Egypt.
“Why would these sharks travel 4,000 kilometers and not have any accidents until they entered Sinai waters?” questioned an Egyptian television talking head. The theory was further promulgated by the region’s governor, who conjectured that the shark may have been working with Mossad to keep tourists away from Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
Another supposed attempt by Israel to manipulate wildlife occurred when a suspicious dolphin off Gaza drew the attention of Hamas’s Qassam Brigade Naval Commandos. After further investigation, officials dubbed the dolphin a “murderer” equipped with surveillance technology. Images of the supposed dolphin and its equipment were never released.
New life was breathed into old conspiracy theories in late 2012, when authorities in the region of Darfur found a vulture outfitted with a GPS and satellite broadcast technology. Its leg tag confirmed that it was part of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University program. Israel’s park authority claimed ownership of the bird. They said it was one among a 100 other vultures involved in a study, which were in no way associated in reconnaissance.
This isn’t meant to cast all instances of animal espionage to the lunatic fringe. Since the 1960s, the U.S. has trained dolphins and sea lions to identify underwater mines as part of the Marine Mammal Program. Five dolphins were sent to Vietnam to put their monitoring skills to the test. In addition, during the Iraq War, dolphins were unleashed into energy waters to pinpoint mines.
In short, Middle Eastern countries have reason to believe that animals could be used to spy on them. In many cases, however, such concerns have driven these countries to the brink of paranoia.