The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Pigeons as Trained Killers? Fahgettaboutit

Facial recognition abilities may make pigeons ideal assassins

It’s a bit disconcerting to be told that the feral pigeon you’ve recently befriended would make an ideal assassin, but that’s what the guy was telling me. Also disconcerting was that the guy doing the telling looked just like Santa Claus, but talked just like Al Pacino.

Enough to confuse a guy – knowwhatimean?

So here’s me, just a regular workin’ guy. One minute I’m playin’ with a pigeon and the next I’m gettin’ the inside skinny on how to whack a guy. What gives? I’d honestly give just about anything to not know now what I didn’t know then because, when all is said and done, knowledge changes a guy – and not always for the better. I mean, who wants to give up their illusions about Santa Claus? What happened was this:

While working as a dolphin trainer under a contract with the U.S. Navy, I started training a pigeon, just for kicks, in my spare time. Before too long the pigeon, which would come when I called and follow a fly-and-perch cue corresponding to a finger point, started attracting the attention of my fellow trainers. A few of them, with resumes of military animal training stretching back to the height of Cold War tensions had, I was sure, stories well worth hearing. But they were often reluctant to tell tales. Need-to-know and all of that.

One day, a veteran trainer observing my pigeon suggested with a sly smile that I talk with Trainer X (whose real name I am withholding because one just doesn’t take liberties with the identity of a guy who sounds like Al Pacino).

“Oh, yeah?” I said, thinking of the trainer I’d met several times. He had a plush mane of white hair and a beard to match. He seemed good-natured enough to qualify as a right jolly old elf. “Did he once train pigeons?” I asked. “I always thought he was Santa Claus.”

“Just go tell him you’ve got an interest in birds,” I was advised. “Don’t ask him anything. Just see what he says.”

I was actually delighted to have an excuse to talk to the old guy. Maybe he’d tell me something about reindeer as well.

At first, Santa seemed like a great guy. Easy smile, jolly laugh. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and flip-flops rather than polished boot leather on his feet. Well, this was some time ago and it was the off-season, after all.

For the record, it’s true what they say. About him knowing things about people. Kinda like Al Pacino. He knew, for instance, about me and the bird. About our training games. About us being nice and then about the pigeon eventually becoming naughty by flying up to folks he shouldn’t be like civil servants and bosses in its tireless search for bread crumbs. Silly bird – who ever heard of getting a hand-out from a civil servant?

Anyway, Santa and I were having a nice chat about bird training – seemed he’d trained quite a few animals aside from reindeer in his day. And I’ve got to say, there was a familiar, homey quality about him, as if he’d just stepped off the pages of some children’s book, made a quick change out of winter reds, and was perfectly content to take all the time in the world to talk about old times. But then he started saying things. Dark things. Things that caused me to question how much I knew about the Santa of my youth, really.

For a time, I tried to duck the question, but was eventually forced to ask myself whether it was possible that the ripe jolly old elf before me had once consorted with known killers. I mean, it was hard not to when he said, “You, know, if you ever want to take somebody out, you should use a pigeon.”

According to Santa, pigeons are great discriminators. Which, among trainers, means that they are good at telling one thing from another. Sorting this from that. “Especially faces.” Santa said, adding ominously, “You can train them to a target using photographs. They’re really good at it.”

To a target? Who was this guy?

I knew that dolphins were good discriminators. I had trained a few myself, for scientific experiments, to pick one object and reject another, so I knew it could be done – theoretically with any animal for any purpose. It was merely a matter of rewarding one choice and not rewarding any of the alternatives.

I told Santa I thought I had read about some CIA attempts during the Cold War on the life of Fidel Castro using pigeons with leg-bands loaded with a tiny bit of C4 explosive, but I wasn’t really sure if I’d believed it.

“Oh, yeah,” Santa said matter-of-factly. “It wouldn’t take much. And pigeons could get real close. You just fly them in through an open window or something. The CIA tried lots of stuff like that.”

You don’t say?

I wasn’t sure I liked this side of Santa. My mind began to reel. Was Santa a Cold Warrior? He was old enough to be. Ex-CIA? Had he consorted with killers and trained assassins? Call it denial, or a psychological defense mechanism, but I started conjuring images of Santa seated before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, leaning into a table-mounted microphone.

“No, Senator, I do not recall. No, Senator, I had no direct prior knowledge . . .”

For Santa’s sake, I wanted him to be able to answer correctly – and honestly. But I was beginning to think he might not be able to.

It was a bit creepy. I mean, before my conversation with Santa, if you’d have asked me whether park pigeons could be turned into killers, I’d have said “Fahgettaboutit.” But then, again, I wouldn’t have guessed that Santa Claus and Al Pacino could possibly have so much in common. I guess you learn something new every day in government work. My mind still reeling, I parted company with Santa and walked back down the pier to find the trained pigeon. For some inexplicable reason, I suddenly just wanted to say hello to my little friend.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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