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Animal Telepathy

by Mark Edward, Jan 05 2009

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.

18 Responses to “Animal Telepathy”

  1. MadScientist says:

    I think one of the big problems is that humans are trained from birth to believe that they’re so vastly superior to other animals and that other animals are ‘stupid’ or mindless.

    As we grow older we see that animals have their own characteristic behavior – even in a flock of sheep you might give one a name because it’s got a slightly different and amusing behavior than the other sheep. Other animals are very different from us humans and it makes little sense to use any measure of human intelligence to assess animal intelligence.

    In my situation naming the amusing animals like ‘donald the duck’ and ‘moo-moo the cow’ still don’t save them from an early demise and a final farewell at the dinner table. It’s a cruel world and this particular animal (myself) needs to eat other animals. I could never eat an animal like a dog though (at least not in typical conditions) because they are such wonderful companions and can often be trained to do very useful things, but some people do eat dogs.

    The bottom line is that there is an awful lot we don’t know about animals and there is no guarantee that future generations will learn much more than is already know about animal cognition, intellect, and behavior. Since we do use many animals for companionship we have a, probably erroneous, tendency to associate a lot of animal behavior with human behavior. But in the end, we’re one species of omnivore and many animals are on our menus.

  2. Border Wars says:

    Border Collies are exceptional dogs, highly intuitive with keen eyes for reading livestock and humans alike. I don’t know if I’d put my money on telepathy, but being highly attuned to our body language, mood, and even smell would not surprise me.

    This is a breed which has a history of pushing new scientific methods from fringe into the mainstream. It was a border collie cross which first tipped off its owner that dogs can smell cancer. It was a border collie cross which recently spurred the commercial dog cloning business. National Geographic has profiled Nico the border collie who has been studied for his huge vocabulary and deductive reasoning abilities. And it was also border collies who were used in the newly published study documenting “inequity aversion” in dogs.

    And the “Lassie Come Home” stories are true. I have one myself.

    As a child in Denver, my parents decided to rehome our year old border collie to a working ranch in Wyoming when our small backyard proved insufficient to keep her entertained and happy.

    After a few weeks in her new home, a summer fireworks display spooked her and she escaped the ranch she was on. Over the next days she found her way hundreds of miles back south from Wyoming down to Denver. She walked into a hospital emergency room a few miles from our house.

    Nothing worthy of a Movie, but evidence that the ability is there.

  3. Don’t pee on the carpet….don’t pee on the carpet….don’t pee on the carpet.

    Nope…didn’t work.

  4. Cambias says:

    Mr. Edward’s account here also gives a valuable lesson into how even skptics can sometimes let themselves be fooled. He’s a skeptic, he’s even a magician, and knows how the tricks are done. But (he admits) he wants to believe in animal telepathy so when it seems to happen he’s intrigued and mystified. If Mr. Edward wasn’t as shrewd and intellectually honest as he obviously is, he would have little trouble convincing himself that Jim was really reading his mind. When we hear of former skeptics who “sell out” or “go nuts” and start boosting paranormal phenomena, remember how easy it is to fool yourself.

  5. LovleAnjel says:

    How many potential biases can come into play here? My cat meows whenever he sees me, and cries on a fairly regular basis throughout the day. So, it gets late, the light changes, he expects me home from work and wanders around crying (yesterday he was crying by the front door about 1/2 hour before I came home, according to my husband). I get antsy when I know my husband is supposed to be home soon, so why wouldn’t the cat, who is dependent on us for food and poo-cleaning?

    Yes, sometimes my critters seem psychic (I’ve kept everything from rodents to reptiles), but I think we’re only considering one end of the bell curve. Most of their behavior is normal, some seems psychic, and some seems devastatingly stupid. If I compare the number of my cat’s psychic ‘events’ with the number of times he ran face-first into furniture or doors, they come out fairly equal.

  6. I think you meant Lassie was limping on three paws. :) [Or off one paw.] On one paw, that would be something to see!

  7. I had a border collie, we had a connection that was uncanny, sorry poster named Cambias, but your comment only demonstrates how shamefully closed minded some who call themselves “skeptics” really are.

  8. Drew says:

    Testimonials and anecdotes are a great start for generating hypotheses, but you can’t consider them real evidence without rigorous experimentation. Irene Pepperberg’s work, while extremely interesting, also is most useful for generating hypotheses and not for drawing conclusions.

    The only research I’m aware of being done on this sort of thing was by done by Dr. Gary Schwartz, and I believe his results were fully explainable by a tendency of animals to check the windows more and more often as time goes by; this analysis was done by a skeptic, but I can’t recall which one (someone please fill me in).

    Given the implausibility of the telepathic-animal hypothesis, I would need to see an extraordinary amount of rigorous research with positive results before I accepted it.

  9. Yeah, it was that famous debunker Gary Schwartz who cleared that one up…

  10. MadScientist says:

    @Devil’s Advocate:

    Is that the same Gary Schwartz who publishes all that fluff about talking to the dead? I can imagine that reasoning with Schwartz would be like reasoning with the dead … or at least the braindead.

  11. Mark Edward says:

    I thought Gary Schwartz was on one of the episodes of “Exploring The Unknown” I did with Shermer where he was a complete believer – must be a different guy. Anyway, Drew, “rigorous research” is exactly what I’m asking for! My post was not meant to be a diatribe on how much telepathy I had with my dog, just a suggestion for what I think would be a fun show to do. Given the crew we have and all the knowledge contained therein, we are bound to find out something new and have a great time doing it. Read my next post coming up on Saturday about “Pet Psychics” as a codicil to where we might go.

  12. Greg Taylor says:

    It wasn’t Gary Schwartz who did the animal telepathy research, it was Rupert Sheldrake. Richard Wiseman did some research countering Sheldrake’s findings, Sheldrake has countered and so on.

  13. MadScientist says:

    I’ll be looking forward to your post on Pet Psychics, Mark. (Is that a play on Psychic Pets?) If we all paid more attention to our pets maybe we’d realize early on what ‘normal’ behavior is for different animals and wouldn’t be so quick to think ‘gee, that’s creepy – my pet must be psychic!’ I think it would make for a great show if it’s done well. :) And what is pretty ordinary stuff for an animal trainer might be the most amazing thing ever seen for people who haven’t spent much time working with animals.

  14. Mark Edward says:

    Psychic pets is a whole other thing and a show on that loaded subject would be very difficult one to capture solid and verifiable info about since most people (I’m starting to be a bit more wary of using terms like “most,” but until better stats are in I’ll have to assume the worst) people who claim to have psychic pets or believe their pets to have ESP are such nutcases, the show would likely tend to tip on the whackjob side of things. Funny, but not so evenly balanced as we might want. Still, there may be some exceptions. Irene Pepperberg has never claimed Alex is psychic, but there must be some borderline incidents worth searching out in cases like hers and getting to the bottom of that kind of “laboratory conditiions” type of sane research would be worth looking into and very entertaining as well. I hope we get to do it. Maybe this would subject have to be a two part episode?

  15. Drew says:

    Thanks Greg for clearing that up, you’re absolutely right. I was getting Sheldrake confused with Schwartz, and Wiseman was the skeptic whose name I couldn’t remember.

    Also, looking at my comment, it looks like I was saying that Schwartz (read, Sheldrake) was saying that animals did not show psi. What I meant was that he was claiming they did, and was debunked by a skeptic (Wiseman).

  16. No problem, Drew. I was joking in that there isn’t a psychic claim out there that Schwartz hasn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t Prove Scientifically. Class A wooster. Uri Geller did a hilarious job on him, as have so many others.

  17. Kyle says:

    It was Rupert Sheldrake who has done work on psychic dogs.
    Go to his website to learn more…
    Quite interesting. Though more work definitely needs to be done.
    That debunking of his psychic dog experiment is laughable at best.
    Only one trial!!? C’mon, if youre gonna debunk someone elses work at least MATCH their protocol.

  18. bill wilson says:

    Yeah, debunkers are important and necessary. But I find too often that they throw one rock at a window and declare the whole house destroyed. I read them endlessly, I do, and sometimes i am one of them.

    That said, here’s one i want to share… house rabbits. My neighbor had house rabbits, about 13 of them at once. They romped in open pens as a herd more or less. After years of quiet co-existence one of the adult rabbits began to thump the floor every evening and into the night, on occasion during the day as well.

    Now this was new behavior. I hear it loud in my apt. because the floors are wood so I know it was not going on before. In addition, the thumps seemed to convey real fear and urgency. The thumping had that kind of slow pace and pause that created apprehension.

    Well, after a week or two of this I decided to stay up late to listen to it more closely. Of course that night the ’94 Northridge quake tries to make rubble out of our building. And as you may guess, the thumping never happened again. (the rabbits survived btw).