I have been an animal lover all my life and the reports of supposed telepathic communication between man and the animal world has long held a deep fascination for me. To this day, I still have trouble keeping a dry eye watching the closing scenes in “Lassie Come Home” when the ragged collie finally makes her lonely way home, limping on one paw. As far back as I can remember in my childhood I wondered: how did she travel all those miles and know where to go?
Granted, Hollywood made its usual overly dramatic point, but just how do animals manage to travel thousands of miles to reunite with their families? Do they even really do that or are all those stories we hear all hoaxes? Even closer to home, how many of us have watched our pets huddle near the front door five or six minutes before another family member made an unscheduled arrival home? I’m not talking about any inner clock mechanisms, the slant of the sun, car doors, squeaking breaks or other tell tale clues that a pet might be expected to recognize. I mean the squirming and whining that we sometimes hear long before any car nears the driveway or footsteps are heard. There are so many of these tales, it’s not hard for me to imagine that even though we know that scientifically many animals have highly developed senses of smell and hearing, something else might be going on. Am I dreaming? Yes, I realize I should know better, but it’s that possibility of something else that has kept me interested and why I’m here.
After finding a reasonable level of success as a solo professional magician many years ago, I found myself wanting more. I chose to set my sights on finding the most intelligent animal I might work with. My plan was to experiment on my own and put together an act that would showcase alledged extra-sensory skills, if they could indeed be replicable on a consistent basis. Crazy huh? During those years, I worked with elephants, tigers, lions, snakes and even a few crazed ostriches, eventually deciding to focus on less dangerous and more accessible domestic animals like dogs, cats and birds. I went to work as a full-time animal trainer for Ray Berwick, the man who trained all the birds for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Ray was already legendary among trainers and to see him work with his personal menagerie of birds and dogs was something truly magical to behold. I had never seen anything like it and I doubt I ever will see anything remotely approaching the almost human qualities he managed to invoke through the relationships he created with his animals. Working from the bottom rungs of the animal trainer ladder was a lot of hard work and I soon came to the realization that I knew I would have to face about my quest: Sometimes convincing telepathic things do seem to happen when you are in the close confines of a rigid training program with an animal you spend considerable time feeding and caring for, but as in life you can’t count on those moments, conjure up or call such chance occurrences forth or build an consistent “act” around them and it’s usually a one-off wonder when anything meaningfully coincidental, synchronistic or “paranormal” occurs. What had I been thinking? Lassie was still haunting me.
During that time I did manage to train a white rat to stop and sit down on a selected playing card secretly placed in a specific spot on a specially made table and “Sheena the Psychic Rat” became an instant sensation at The Magic Castle. Still, I wanted something big that would fill a whole stage with the suggestion of the wonders of animal telepathy. The closest I came to accomplishing this goal was to put together an act that simulated canine ESP and culminated with the levitation of the dog who would teach me so much about what I was after; Jim, …Emperor of all Dogs.
Jim was an exceptional Border Collie, the smartest breed I could find. I began working with him as a pup and after two years of intensive training, he could not only perform all the standard dog tricks using silent hand signals, but also find hidden objects, indentify randomly chosen cards in a shuffled pack and of course, fully levitate. I know what you are thinking, (I’m a mentalist) but you would have to see it to believe it. I have tape. Please don’t ask for an explanation here. You won’t get it. As you know, I’ve done my bit of exposing magic secrets and let’s just say Jim looked damn good levitating high above the stage.
I knew when we were on the road that Jim was a unique beast and the audiences we appeared before loved him. I also knew what we were doing night after night was only a trick. It simulated in the better moments what all the classic “educated animal” acts of the last century tried to put over, but the ever elusive “real thing” only cropped up once in a blue moon. It was an unexpected treat when Jim would seem to read my mind or carry on doing something totally astounding and break the rehearsed pattern we had worked so hard to bring to the stage. Like working as a medium doing enactments of what a séance might be like if it was real, things would occasionally happen that made me wonder. I suppose that’s precisely why I do these things.
In the golden age of mediumship this kind of rare incident was referred to by both mediums and their investigators as “mixed mediumship.” Unfortunately such moments with mediums like Eusapia Palladino and Henry Slade only managed to further muddle the characteristic duplicity that usually ended up being exposed as outright fraud. In the years that Jim and I worked our show, strange things that were clearly not part of “the act” would happen. The audience usually missed out on the funniest part of all this, which was that as these things transpired, I would of course have to remain totally in character and apparently in control as “”The Magician,” while later on backstage I would be lost in a world of amazement at what a not-so-simple dog had done to up-stage me. Sometimes it seemed like Jim was training me! Stories like this from my animal training and touring days are too numerous to go into here, but it was an eye-opening era of my life that showed me how little we really know about how intelligent animals think and communicate. Jim is unfortunately long gone, but the nagging questions and the fantasy of “animal thought transmission” still pester this magician once in awhile.
Is it our anthropomorphic imaginations that drive us to a compelling need to believe that our pets have abilities “far beyond mortal man?” Or could there exist heightened levels of mental perception going on with birds, cats and dogs that could be scientifically measured, tested and brought into clearer focus for discerning television viewers? We all know about “Clever Hans” and what happened there, so I’m plenty skeptical. Just the same I’ll still bet just about anyone reading this blog has a few stories of their own to tell that stretch the limits of believability when it comes to animals somehow “knowing things.” Check out Irene Pepperberg and her African Gray parrot Alex online or her book, “Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.” With a brain only the size of a walnut, Alex makes Lassie look like an ignoramus. Perhaps we take our animal friends for granted, fancying ourselves a bit higher on the food chain than we might one day discover? Then there’s all that stuff about cats predicting earthquakes and the whole dolphin muse. It’s a huge area to cover. I hope we can take a serious look at animal psi one day. We might learn something that would surprise even The Skeptologists.