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Norwegian authorities recently accused the Russian Navy of using animals as spies. Fishermen spotted and photographed a white beluga whale equipped with a camera harness. The harness even bore a label marked "St. Petersburg." The story reminds me that two Arkansans, Keller and Marian Breland of Hot Springs, played huge roles in enlisting animals in the American military effort during the Cold War. They are better known, however, for one of their businesses: I.Q. Zoo of Hot Springs.

The Brelands were pioneering researchers in the field of scientifically validated animal training -- what became known as "operant conditioning." Established in 1955, the Zoo quickly became a popular tourist destination and the public face of a considerably larger business. Visitors were amazed to see chickens walk tightropes or dance to jukebox music, rabbits ride miniature fire trucks or spin roulette wheels, or raccoons play basketball.

While the zoo animals were remarkable, the people who trained them were much more so. Marian and Keller Breland took applied animal psychology to new heights of both public and professional interest and acceptance.

The Brelands met while both were students at the University of Minnesota. Both studied under B. F. Skinner, the famous behavioral psychologist.

During World War II, the Brelands worked with Skinner on his "Project Pigeon," an effort to train pigeons to guide missiles for the U.S. Navy. Gradually the Brelands came to the conclusion that animal training of this nature, "operant conditioning" as it was known, offered commercial possibilities.

In 1947 the Brelands opened their new business, Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE). Within three years the company was making a profit -- which must have confirmed their decisions to leave school without completing their Ph.D. degrees. In the early 1950s the Brelands moved from Minnesota to a large farm at Lonsdale near Hot Springs. In 1955 they opened the I.Q. Zoo on Whittington Avenue.

The Brelands' business soon had customers all over the world. They trained animals for Knott's Berry Farm, Opryland and various Six Flags facilities. Mrs. Breland was the first person to train animals to star in television commercials. At its height, the business employed 40 people. The Brelands, along with a cast of animals, were popular guests on many television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as shows hosted by Dave Garroway, Jack Paar and Steve Allen.

An especially popular feature at the I.Q. Zoo was "Bird Brain," an opportunity to compete against a chicken at tic tac toe. The chicken, which always had the first move, won the game without fail. The Brelands were especially pleased when their hen defeated B.F. Skinner when he came for a visit. One of the Bird Brain exhibit boxes was donated to the Smithsonian in 2004.

J. Arthur Gillaspy Jr. and Elson M. Bihm, both of the University of Central Arkansas and authors of the entry on Keller Breland in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, wrote that: "Today, the animal training programs at most major theme parks and oceanariums, such as Sea World and Busch Gardens, can be traced back to Keller and Marian Breland."

The Brelands were very different individually, but they made an effective team. Gillaspy and Bihm succinctly described their different work roles: "He was the idea man; she made it all work." Animal Behavior, their 1966 textbook, was published to great acclaim.

Writing in 1961, the Brelands reflected that "when we began this work, it was our aim to see if science would work beyond the laboratory, to determine if animal psychology could stand on its own feet as an engineering discipline." Thirty-eight animal species, totaling more than 6,000 individual animals, had been "conditioned," boasted the authors, "and we have dared to tackle such unlikely subjects as reindeer, cockatoos, raccoons, porpoises and whales."

Though military contracts were only a portion of their overall work, ABE's role in secretly training animals for military service was important. Tom Vanderbilt, writing in Smithsonian magazine, has noted that the Brelands "promised an entirely new level of sophistication, as if James Bond's Q had met Marlin Perkins."

Much of the success of ABE's military training was due to the work of Bob Bailey, a zoologist and chemist whom the Brelands met when he was in charge of marine mammal training for the U.S. Navy. While information on ABE's work with the military is still classified, we do know that dolphins were trained to perform a number of tasks, including rescuing loss sailors. Bailey was impressed by the natural sleuthing abilities of ravens, but he took particular pride in his "acoustic kitty," a cat which was wired with a transmitter and which was especially good at working parties. The animal spies were usually smuggled via diplomatic pouches.

ABE had enough military business to warrant building a movie set-like town of false-fronted buildings where animals could be trained to investigate specific urban locations. Ravens were trained to plant listening devices. Bailey recalled later that he worked with the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, N.C., to train pigeons to fly ahead of advancing columns and signal the presence of enemies -- the "squab squad," as it was unofficially known.

In 1965 Keller Breland died of a heart attack, and his widow became president of ABE. In 1976 she married Bob Bailey, and their work continued.

In 1978, over three decades after leaving graduate school, Marian completed her doctorate at the University of Arkansas in experimental psychology. Returning to academia in 1981, she became professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, though she remained as president of ABE. She was a popular professor, and she did not retire until 1998 at the age of 78. She died in 2001. Her widower continued the family's work. Henderson State University established a scholarship honoring Mrs. Breland in 2003.

The I.Q. Zoo closed in 1990, and periodic attempts to open new ones have failed. But the professional reputations of Keller and Mariam Breland, as well as Bob Bailey, have been enhanced greatly due to the enthusiastic work of two University of Central Arkansas psychologists. Art Gillaspy and Elson Bihm have collected the papers of the Brelands and created an exhibit at the Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron, Ohio.

By the way, that beluga whale is still hanging out in a Norwegian port, which has prompted some locals to speculate that it is seeking asylum.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at

NAN Profiles on 05/12/2019

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