Conspiracies & Crap: Israeli Animal Spies
Americans are no strangers to government-related conspiracy theories. Even those that don't wonder about at least one or two theories have heard a few of them. Though as we puzzle over, or laugh at some of these ideas, we rarely stop to think that other countries may have wilder theories about their own, or surrounding governments. I present you now with the wildest theory of all. Recruited and trained Israeli spies of all different species.
It seems to be a close-held belief, particularly in Egypt, that the Israeli government is some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful super-entity. After reading the Wikipedia page on this conspiracy theory, I can certainly say that surrounding countries truly seem to think that they are capable of any and everything. While many Americans believe our own government to be capable of some awful things, I couldn't imagine believing that anyone would be recruiting animals for espionage.
Zoological conspiracies involving Israel can be found online as well as in the media. Typically these outrageous kinds of claims come from out of Muslim-majority countries. Their oftentimes reported as evidence of some kind of Zionist or Israeli plot against them. Birds have been the most often accused of spying, but as you will see many different animals have also faced accusations over the years. All of them were being tracked for research and study, normally by Tel Aviv University.
The fuss all stems from the way these animals of research are tagged with GPS devices or identification bands. This is so the animals can be tracked, but when they're discovered across borders these items make the public's imagination go wild. Though scientists are simply trying to track migration patterns, or more tightly control animal-borne communicable diseases, others think they're up to something more nefarious. Avian ecologist at Israel's Nature and Park Authority, Ohad Hatzofe, says that ignorance is to blame for these kinds of theories.
The kestrel is a predatory bird from the falcon genus, Falco. During its nesting season, it is a frequent visitor to both Israel and Turkey. At this time they build their nests, lay their eggs, and care for their young.
In 2013, villagers in the Elazig Province of Turkey discovered one of these birds with an Israeli foot band. Medical personnel at Firat University were the first to identify the kestrel as an "Israeli spy" in their registration documents. A thorough medical exam, including an X-ray, determined that the bird wasn't carrying any electronic devices. The bird was released and no charges were filed. I'm not really clear at this point if they meant against Israel, or the bird.
The European bee-eater is known as a migratory bird that breeds in Southern and Central Europe, Northern and Southern Africa, and Western Asia. Then, they travel to tropical Africa to winter. It's clear that this species doesn't like to sit still.
A dead bee-eater turned up near the Turkish city of Gaziantep. The villagers that happened upon it found that it had an Israeli leg band intended for tracking migratory birds. Immediately fear spread that Israeli intelligence had sent the bird, carrying a micro-chip to gather information. Local officials were alerted and the head of the Agriculture and Livestock Provincial Directorate in Gaziantep was sent out. Akif Aslanpay examined the bee-eater's body when he arrived and only served to stoke fears further. He commented that "the nose of the bird is very different and much lighter than others." He also stated that this could be used for video or audio recording.
A counter-terrorism unit got involved before Turkey's agricultural ministry assured the public that it's common for migrant birds to be outfitted with rings for tracking. Jonathan Head, a correspondent for BBC, commented that these "wildly implausible conspiracy theories take root easily in Turkey, with alleged Israeli plots among the most widely believed." In this case that isn't hard to believe at all.
Vultures are birds of prey that scavenge on the remains of other animals. There are 23 extant species of vulture, 16 of which belong to the Old World vultures. These birds are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. The other 7 species make up the New World vultures, found in North and South America.
In December 2012, it was reported in a Sudanese paper that their government had caught a vulture in the town of Kereinek. Finding that it was outfitted with electronic devices and tagged in Hebrew, they immediately jumped to conclusions. This bird was clearly an Israeli spy. Ohad Hatzofe told the Israeli news site Ynet that this vulture had been just one of 100 tagged in October of that year for study. This bird had two wing bands and a German-made GPS chip with no photographic capabilities.
Hatzofe points out that with the advent of drones, there is no logical reason to use birds for espionage. You cannot control a bird like a drone. Outfitting them with undetectable cameras and recording devices would be next to impossible to accomplish. Even if this could be done, what could really be learned from watching a vulture eat the innards of a dead animal?
Bonelli's eagle is a bird of prey, named for the Italian ornithologist and collector credited with gathering the specimen, Franco Andrea Bonelli. In 2013, one of these eagles was captured in Hezbollah. It was immediately assumed that the bird was an Israeli spy sent to Lebanon. They claimed that this had been just one of many birds sent by Israel to gather intelligence with the use of GPS transmitters. Tel Aviv University rushed to respond that the eagle was part of one of their research projects on raptors.
This poor, endangered beauty was shot right out of the sky as he flew. The body was delivered to Hezbollah, presumably to examine for devices of espionage. Israeli ornithologist, Yossi Leshem, was "incredibly frustrated" to hear that the eagle he'd been studying had been killed. Not only was one of an endangered species killed, but valuable research to possibly help them was gone. Leshem commented, "Unfortunately, this bird made the stupid mistake of moving to Lebanon."
Syrian opposition forces captured a rare eagle that had been tagged by the Gowan Heights Gamla nature reserve. They initially thought the bird was carrying electronic devices, but later returned it to the reserve. On September 5, 2017, the rare eagle was given back as a show of recognition of the medical help that Israel had provided in the Syrian Civil War.
The Eurasian griffon vulture is an Old World vulture in the bird of prey family. The species had nearly disappeared from the mountains of Israel until they became the subject of a reintroduction project. Due to this project, the griffon vultures were tagged and outfitted with radios and labels to better keep track of the population as it hopefully grew. In 2011, one of these vultures was caught by a hunter near Ha'il, Saudi Arabia. The bird had a wingspan of eight feet (2.4 meters) and was wearing a GPS device along with a "Tel Aviv University" tag on its leg. Quickly rumors swirled about the spy bird sent from Israel. Saudi newspapers rushed all too quickly to publish the rumors without taking a moment to fact-check.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Secretary General of the Saudi National Security Council, dismissed the scuttlebutt being spread by the media. He could easily see what was in front of him, and what was in front of him was equipment and tags utilized in scientific study. He publicly admonished the journalists that rushed too quickly to print a salacious story without looking into all of the facts. The bird was quickly released back into the wild to aid in the growing of their population.
Another griffon vulture was caught in January 2016, in the Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil. It was of course thought to be an Israeli spy when it was caught flying 2.5 miles over the border (4 kilometers). They tied the vulture up to check it for listening devices. Later UN peacekeepers would return it to Israel.
If these instances of spy birds weren't strange enough, it gets weirder. In December 2010, several shark attacks off the South Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt sent locals into a panic. After these attacks, Captain Mustafa Ismail, introduced as a "famous diver," appeared for an interview on Tawfik Okasha's popular and very controversial show, Egypt Today. During this interview, he alleged that a GPS tracking device had been found on one of the sharks responsible for the bloodshed. He added to his allegations when he claimed that the GPS was actually a "guiding device." According to his asinine assumptions, the Israeli government had sent these sharks specifically to hurt tourism in the area. The governor of South Sinai, Mohammad Abdul Fadhil Shousha, also said that such schemes aren't out of the question for Israel. In response, the Israeli foreign ministry commented that Shousha had watched "Jaws one time too many."
Professor Mahmoud Hanafy, a marine biologist at Suez Canal University, called their latest theory "sad." He went on to explain that it's quite common for marine biologists to use GPS devices when tracking sea life out in the ocean. They most certainly cannot and do not use devices to control sharks like drones. Egyptian officials looked at more plausible reasons for the attacks. Overfishing, illegal feeding, the dumping of sheep carcasses in the ocean, or unusually high temperatures in the water could've brought the sharks closer to land.
Amr Yossef, adjunct professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, believes that these absurd theories are the direct result of Egypt's strong-held belief that Israel is an all-powerful entity. He points out that though there is no tangible proof to suggest this could be true, no one ever seems to question it. Yossef wonders how no one has questioned why a country that is constantly facing such security threats as they would bother with ridiculous ventures like animal spies.
Perhaps one reason for such theories stems from the fact that mammals have been utilized by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) since its inception in 1948. Pack animals like camels or mules are perfect for hauling cargo and negotiating rough terrain. Soldiers even perform special operations training with llamas to hide from heat-detection. Anti-tank dogs were used in a 1988 mission known as Operation Blue and Brown. This was the attack of the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Antelope and oryxes, a genus of the large antelope species, clear vegetation on Israeli army bases. Barbary sheep are also used to guard ammunition depots.
Considering the long history between the IDF and the animal kingdom, it comes as no surprise that many mammals have been accused of spying for them as well. Swine, hyenas, rodents, and even dolphins have been thought to be carrying devices for the purposes of espionage. With such reactions over animals of study, I don't want to see what happens if a kid flies their drone too close to the wrong border.
The first accusation that Israel was using dolphins to spy was made on August 19, 2015. The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas claimed to have found one off the Gaza coast outfitted with cameras and other equipment. Iran's Fars News Agency took the claims more than just a step further when they called it an "Israeli-made robot dolphin equipped with espionage equipment, including video-recording cameras." They outright accused the Israeli government of using dolphins in an attempt to kill Qassam Brigade Naval Commandos, using their known friendship with humans to do so. The IDF didn't dignify the laughable accusation with a response. Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that dolphins have been used by various military forces, including the U.S. and Russia. They also say that this story clearly falls under the category of conspiracy theories concerning the Israeli government.
In January 2022, another dolphin faced accusations when a masked spokesman for the al-Qassam Brigades appeared in a video message. He claimed that Israeli security forces had used another dolphin to chase Hamas frogmen off the coast of the Gaza Strip. I guess this time they weren't relying on the friendly relations between humans and dolphins to get the job done.
Wild boars and pigs have been thought to be sent by Israeli forces to destroy agricultural fields and intimidate Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. The Palestinian National Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, accused them of sending the wild animals each and every night, though the allegations have been denied. On May 5, 2016, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was bitten on her hand by either a wild boar or pig. She went into shock as a result of her bite, leaving locals outraged. Once again, allegations were thrown about that the government of Israel was sending these animals deliberately to attack villagers. This was thought to be their way of keeping Palestinians off their land. Meanwhile, others claimed that the Israeli West Bank barrier "affected the habitat of wild boars, possibly leading to higher concentrations of the animal's population in certain areas." Palestinian researcher, Rawan Samamreh, claims that wild boars were used in an older Zionist imperative to colonize nature.
Rats were thrown under the bus on March 13, 2018, when Jordanian television host Dr. Bakr Al-Abadi made his claims on Jordanian Prime TV. He said that "The Zionist entity" had gathered up all of the rats in Norway carrying the Bubonic plague and released them into all of the Egyptian provinces near the Sinai. Citing an unnamed Egyptian source, he says this was an operation undertaken decades ago, in 1967. Now, having multiplied in great force since that time, "these rats still exist in very large numbers." He said that they wreak havoc on crops and destroy grain silos as they continue to breed at an alarming pace. Claiming that children are not even safe from these rodents, he says that rats bite at their limbs oftentimes. According to the ramblings of his source, "since the beginning of the normalization of its ties with Cairo" the "Zionist entity" has smuggled rotten seeds and chemical fertilizers into their country. In his very warped opinion, they are out to destroy the "Arab world."
On December 27, 2022, perhaps the most hilarious claim of all was printed in the official newspaper of the Palestinian National Authority, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. They reported on trained spies in the form of cattle. A village elder in Khirbet Yanun near Nablus named Rushd Morrar was quoted as calling Israeli cattle "recruited and trained spies."He said that these recruited cows wear medallions around their necks with eavesdropping and recording capabilities. Sometimes, he says, they even have cameras. It's his opinion that everything going on in Khirbet Yanun is being monitored by the Israeli government. He also believes them to be responsible for releasing wild boars into Palestine to destroy their crops.
The final theory concerns reptiles spying for multiple Western countries, including Israel. In February 2018, Hassan Firouzabadi, military advisor to Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, claimed that lizards and chameleons are used to spy on Iranian nuclear sites. Believing these reptiles capable of attracting "atomic waves" through their skin, he thinks that their purpose is to find out where the uranium mines are located within the Islamic Republic of Iran. He also believes them to be capable of detecting wherever they may be "engaged in atomic activities."
It's almost astonishing to think that there are honestly people out there that wholeheartedly believe this. But then, we also have to remember that there are people out there that believe in reptile people, too. Though I have to admit to subscribing to a few conspiracy theories myself, I can definitely say that this is not one of them. While it's always healthy and helpful to ask questions, it's also wise to consider all possible answers.