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The Ballad of Jed (and the Pet Psychic)

Karen Stollznow

Volume 19.1, March 2009

Listen to my story ’bout a cat named Jed.

I wanted to test a pet psychic, but there was a slight problem. I didn’t have a pet.

Fortunately, my neighbors Matt and Bekah Johnson have two cats. There is Bizzy, a painfully shy toothless tabby, and Tennessee Jed, a plump, rambunctious tomcat. Since Bizzy rarely emerges from beneath the bed, Jed seemed the preferable feline subject for the investigation.

“Can I borrow Jed so I can test a pet psychic?” I asked my neighbors. “Sure!” they obliged, as though I’d asked if I could simply borrow a hammer or for the proverbial cup of sugar. I had the pet; now I needed a pet psychic.

Call it animal communication, animal whispering, or interspecies telepathic contact; this is big business for a clientele of doting owners, nervous trainers, and exasperated farmers. These psychic Doctor Dolittles claim variously to be able to perceive and understand the “words,” thoughts, and feelings of non-human animals (including deceased pets) using clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, and channeling and often to be able to diagnose and treat their diseases. There are hundreds of pet psychics in California alone. Here are some samples of their claims.

Reverend Sylvia Shaules, pictured clutching a terrified-looking rodent, specializes in the mysterious-sounding “dreamtime messengers,” “totem animals,” and “Giving Your Animal a Voice” (yes, her voice). Animal analyst Patrice Ryan is pet psychic to the stars of Hollywood. For $400 per hour she’ll perform “energy healing” on your pet. This sounds vague, but Ryan enthuses, “It’s truly a profound and enlightening experience.” Lori Wright will practice hands-on or remote reiki on your kitty and claims to be able to contact deceased pets, but she won’t (can’t?) “consult on lost animal situations.”

Buddy Love is “California’s Finest Male Pet Psychic” for whom “no problem is to big” [sic]. Love’s client reviews accuse him of being a slow typist during chat room readings while user “mykidzrule” complained of Love’s reading, “Completely opposite of what he told me last time.” Paula Brown styles herself as an “animal feng shui expert” and prepares remedies for your pet’s health needs. Small animals have delicate constitutions, so this is a particularly dangerous practice, but since Brown’s preparations are “flower essences,” they probably only serve as pet placebos (or owner placebos).

Animal Intuitive Cindy Western claims the incredible ability to “hear the voices” of animals. She explains, “it’s like having a conversation with a person, but it’s a conversation between the minds.” Western “heals and cares” for your beloved pets with herbs, vitamins, aromatherapy, and massage (is that like patting?). Animal communicator Kazuko Tao offers pet acupuncture and chiropractic. As a registered veterinary technician, Tao should know better than to offer these integrative services.

Like Ace Ventura, Lydia Hiby fashions herself as a “pet detective.” A Dr. Kevorkian for pets, she advises clients “when it is time to put an animal to sleep.” Hiby further claims she can communicate with non-verbal people, including “comatose, stroke victims, autistic children, etc.” But she won’t read deceased pets. Instead she recommends the John Edward of pet psychics, Teresa Wagner. Wagner is a “grief counselor” and pet medium who conducts séances with animals that have “crossed over Rainbow Bridge.”

But don’t be concerned about these wild claims; the pet psychic industry is regulated by a stringent “Code of Ethics” devised by “pioneer animal communication specialist” Penelope Smith. Smith claims that telepathic communication enables “universal communication” across species. . . .

Unfortunately, these pet psychics were either too far away or unavailable. Instead, they all offered remote appointments, email or telephone readings upon supplying the name, age, sex, color, breed, and a photo of the animal. It was back to the clawing board for me. Finally, I located Reverend Ann Savino, “The Bay Area Pet Psychic.” Savino is a “professional clairvoyant and staff member of the Academy for Psychic Studies. Her advertisement beams, “Psychic readings for animals. Animal communication and healing. Pet readings lovingly done—Give to those who give so much to you.” For a fee of $80, Ann agreed to travel from Berkeley to San Rafael to read “my” cat. The following is a report of this appointment, laced with commentary and Matt’s responses to the reading. With Ann’s permission I video recorded the entire session.

On the appointed day, Bekah arrived with a very skeptical-looking Jed. He wasn’t happy about being wrenched from his turf. Released in my lounge room, Jed slunk around close to the ground and darted under a futon, where he stayed. Normally a cocky kitty, this behavior was highly uncharacteristic. At first, I indulged Jed’s shyness, hoping that he would quickly assimilate to his temporary environment. Then he fell asleep. The time drew nearer to the appointment, and I needed to extricate him from his hiding spot. It wouldn’t take a pet psychic to deduce that something was wrong.

I called his name excitedly, but he stared coolly at me. I tried to lure him out with a very fun-looking fuzzy pineapple toy and a tasty turkey snack to no avail. So I had to adopt the tough love approach. I dragged aside the futon, grabbed Jed, held him firmly on my lap, and began petting him enthusiastically. It worked! Within minutes he was purring, frolicking around, and rubbing against me.

I heard a knock at the door and did a last dash around the house, hiding copies of The Skeptic. Ann entered the room and Jed took one look at her before retiring to the corner, wrapping himself up in a ball and sleeping with one eye open, fixed on her. She seemed nervous, so I made small talk. “Have you ever read any bizarre animals, like a llama?” She seemed to relax a tad; “Mostly cats and dogs. Once I read a guinea pig.”

“I’ll need a few minutes to center myself and warm-up,” Ann explained. She sat there, eyes closed, hands outstretched as though she was warming herself over an imaginary fire. For five minutes. When she came to, like a mountaintop seer she asked sagely, “What questions do you have?”

“Can you tell me about Jed’s past?” I asked. Of course, this implied that I didn’t know Jed’s past.

“How long have you had him?” Ann asked.

“Can’t Jed answer that question for you?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m just wondering.”

“About six months,” I claimed, waiting for Jed to “speak” up.

“Is he from a shelter?” she asked.

“Can’t Jed tell you about his background?” I urged again, wanting to witness the psychic action.

“I think he’s from a shelter. I can tell you haven’t had him long,” she stated.

Matt comments: “The psychic guessed that one. We got him from a rescue society that got him from the pound. He was one of a litter of kittens someone brought in.” Cat adoption is popular here in the States. Pet stores regularly hold “rescue days” for abandoned cats and kittens that are typically tabby moggies like Jed. But can we count this as a “hit”? As rescuing is a common practice, this was a logical question, followed by “I think he’s from a shelter,” admittance of a cognition-based conclusion. Ann also assumed that I hadn’t owned Jed for a “long” period of time. Was this supposition based on my accent, that I “hadn’t been in the country very long” myself? Or because I implied that I was unaware of Jed’s past? Or was this an observation based on Jed’s size? The latter is suggested by the following exchange.

“How old is Jed?” I continued.

“He’s one year old,” Ann answered immediately, “but I can tell that by just looking at him.” Although not a psychic vision, this visual conclusion was inaccurate anyway. Matt reveals, “Jed is roughly three years old. We’ve had him since he was twelve weeks old.”

I was beginning to become frustrated with this un-psychic performance and Ann’s shameless questions. “How does Jed actually ‘talk’ to you?” I inquired.

She replied, “He sends me images. I read his aura. It’s like an energy field that contains pictures and information. I ask him specific questions and he shows me images.” So Jed “understands” Ann’s complex questions, uttered in her English-speaking “inner voice”? Then she offered a disclaimer, “This reading isn’t full of hard-wired facts. I see images, like Jed playing in the grass and rolling over.” If I had to visualize a specific cat, I’d probably “see” it playing, eating, sleeping, or enacting other such typical cat behavior too.

“Is Jed aware that you’re communicating with him?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ann replied. I looked across at Jed, who was fast asleep.

“Where was Jed born?” I asked.

Ann closed her eyes momentarily. When she opened them she announced, “He was born not far from here. It was here in Marin County. This was somewhere hilly, not downtown San Rafael. It was maybe a little north, like Petaluma. It was definitely in this area, within a 10–15 mile radius.” The truth was unpredictable. Jed wasn’t even born in California. Matt replies: “Jed was born in/around Jackson, Mississippi. This is over 2,000 miles from Marin and not so much as a large hill in sight.”

I asked next, “Does Jed feel at home here?”

“Let me tune into him,” she said as her eyes rolled back into her head. “He’s happy here. He feels secure and safe. He definitely feels at home.” She paused, “This is the most secure he’s ever felt. He knows that this is his home.” Surely, if Ann were psychic, she would “see” images of Jed’s real home and real owners? But then she really drove the nail in, “Jed’s secure, happy, and safe in this home. He knows he’s loved. He knows that you’re his mummy.”

This recalled to me the previous scene before Ann arrived. As Bekah left, she bent down towards Jed and said endearingly, “Goodbye son. I’ll be back soon.” It was very clear that she is the cat’s mother. Weeks later, I met Matt’s mother, Miss Linda, who said to me, “I hear you’re writing about our grandson.”

“I’m sorry?” I replied, confused.

“I hear you’re writing about Jed.” Either she wants grandchildren, or Jed is seriously entrenched as a member of the Johnson family.

But don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. I allowed Ann to continue her storytelling. She began weaving a tale about Jed that would have been plausible if his past wasn’t known. “For the first few months Jed didn’t think he’d stay here with you. He used to live outside on the streets as a feral cat. He had to find food on his own. It was traumatic for him; a daily struggle for survival.” In reality, Jed’s daily struggle is trying to strategize how to eat his food and Bizzy’s.

In contrast, we know that Jed was taken straight to the shelter as a kitten and he barely spent any time there before being adopted by his existing owners. Matt comments: “He was the picture of health at 12 weeks when we got him, and was already house trained. He has no survival skills whatsoever and is embarrassing to watch in his attempts to ‘hunt’ bugs around the house.” A truly “traumatic” incident that Jed experienced in 2005 was Hurricane Katrina. Ann didn’t “see” that one, but according to her, Jed wasn’t even born yet.

In Ann’s story, Jed was impounded after a life on the streets. “He didn’t get a lot of attention in the shelter. There were lots of other cats.” He then became a foster cat foisted upon different homes. “He never had a steady owner before you. Until you, no one ever made the commitment to say, ‘You’re my cat.’ Now he’s confused. All the fuss and attention you give him, it’s all new to him. He’s had other owners but he’s never been someone’s pet before you.”

“Jed had other owners before me?” I repeated in surprise.

“Yes, Jed had three previous homes. They were all temporary, and they all neglected him. They didn’t give him any affection and then abandoned him,” she claimed. Jed had led quite an adventurous life during his first six months! I asked Matt if this could be possible: “No, other than the person that brought him and the other kittens to the pound when he was quite small.”

The story continued. “Jed also had three different names.” I asked her what these names were. She paused. “He was called something beginning with “P.” Also he was called “Buttons.” The previous owner just called him “Cat.” They didn’t care about him at all.” To me, “Buttons” doesn’t sound like the name of a neglected cat, but I asked Matt if Jed had any previous names of which he was aware: “Nope, just Tennessee Jed. (That’s if you discount profanities and vulgarities directed toward him almost daily from his loving parents.)” I asked Matt to specify the PG-rated names, and he replied, “We also call him Beastly One, Kingly One, Wretch, Tiger, Foul One, and Tubbs.” Among this lengthy list there’s no name beginning with “P,” no “Buttons” or “Cat.”

Eerily, Ann’s hand would occasionally float above her lap, but she’d continue to talk as though nothing strange was happening.

“Would he benefit from having another cat around?” I asked, seeing if Jed would tell Ann about his beloved Bizzy, whom Matt calls Jed’s “Sister-Wife.” Ann said, “Jed’s not a dominant cat. Another cat would freak him out. That would be too much of an adjustment for him now.” She advised, “This isn’t a good time for another cat. He would stay away from another cat. He’s shy. He’s now used to being the only one. In the past, other cats were his family, not people. The other cats were more dominant than him.”

Matt responds with: “My butt! Jed is delusional in thinking that he is ‘Shere Kahn’ from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. And he freaks out when Bizzy is not around. He searches for her and yowls pathetically when she is at the vet or when she was missing.”

Ann continued, obviously analyzing Jed’s current introverted behavior. “He’s very sensitive. He’s not the kind of cat that just walks up to people he doesn’t know. I know other cats like this too. My sister has a cat. He knows me well. He hides as soon as he sees me.” Who said pet psychics have a sensitive connection with animals?

Matt responds: “Jed can be shy, but that quickly diminishes into a forceful attitude as I’m sure you are aware. He lived with his grandparents for the summer and took over their home in about 10 minutes, re-arranging things to his liking. Some folks he likes, some he ignores, and some he attacks (mainly small children) with swift slaps to the top of the head.” I have personally witnessed Jed terrorizing Bizzy and attacking Matt, ambush style.

Ann began to wind down the session, “I’m going to take a look at your agreements; why you two came together.” Would Jed “say,” “we came together to be neighbors?” Or, “so Karen could investigate pet psychics for The Skeptic?” Ann closed her eyes and proceeded to gesticulate exaggeratedly with sign language-like motions. “You’re a healer, a nurturer. You like to save people. Jed needed saving.” Then she went into a surreal reverie. “I see Jed finger painting now. He’s creative and expressive. Now he can blossom. He has trust. He’s never had this before. He is now loved and safe. He is a sweet, sweet boy. He’s very gentle.” This comment reminded me of the time that Jed took a casual swipe at Matt, drawing blood as he lodged a claw in Matt’s eyelid.

“I’ll do some energy clearing and healing for Jed.” Now in her role as pet medical intuitive, she began clawing and flicking away the air with her fingers as she mouthed gibberish. Then she said calmly, “I can now confirm he’s 1 year old. One to 15 months.” However, we know that Jed is three years of age, therefore Ann was incorrect both in her psychic and visual verdicts. Then Ann had a message for me. “I just saw an image of your lower body lighting up, showing an issue down there. Did you lose a baby?”

“No,” I replied honestly.

“Oh,” she tried to recover, “Jed is showing me a picture of you being sad. He doesn’t like to see you sad.”

Then she diagnosed Jed. “There aren’t any blocks in his body. But there’s been something wrong with his stomach area.”

Matt responds: “He’s rather large, but not obese. We just found out that he has herpes, which is rather amusing. But other than that (which only results in an ulcer on his lip) he has never even had a good case of fleas. He likes to drag his butt on the ground. It is quite disturbing to witness but more than one vet has assured us that it is simply something he enjoys due to his perverse nature and not a sign of illness.”

In closing the session Ann asked, “Do you have anything you want to communicate to Jed?” He was still fast asleep. “Tell him, he’s home. He’s not going anywhere,” I said in a last attempt to see if Jed would reveal the truth.

“I gave him your message,” she announced.

“And what did he say?” I asked.

“He said, ‘I know that mummy.’” On her way out the door she stooped down and tickled Jed’s tummy, “You’ve never been anybody’s cat until now, have you? Now you’re somebody’s cat! Now Karen’s your mummy!”

Overall, the reading was characterized by Ann’s questions, assumptions, and generalizations and based simplistically in folkloric knowledge of cat behavior. Ann contributes to the online American Spirit psychic newspaper, where she conducts free readings for readers. There I found simple queries and answers about characteristic cat behavior, as though Ann were a pet psychologist. My reading with Ann was a cat cold reading.

Joe Nickell (2002) cites five general cold reading techniques that he has observed in pet psychics:

  1. Noting the obvious.
  2. Making safe statements.
  3. Asking questions.
  4. Offering vague statements that most people can apply specifically to themselves.
  5. Returning messages to animals. (It was the message I received in response that invalidated this ability!).

On the basis of this session, Ann didn’t provide any evidence of psychic abilities but instead appeared to employ similar techniques, either consciously or not. As confirmed by Jed’s owners, Ann was completely inaccurate in her reading of Jed’s age, place of birth, background, behavior, health, and my health. The shelter “hit” was more miss, posed as a question, and then an uncertain claim with the caveat “think.” Most damning of all, Jed is not my cat, and my home is not his!

It’s an easy gig to speak on behalf of the voiceless. Animal communication, of a paranormal nature, presupposes that the pet is telepathic, is able to understand human language and thought, and able to “respond” in kind. “Interspecies communication” appears to be a visual and subjective or imaginative interpretation of the physical and behavioral traits of non-human animals. No matter how many commands your dog responds to, no matter how many words Koko can sign, no matter how many words your parrot can mimic, language is human-species specific. We don’t and can’t “know” what animals think. Despite our own linguistic abilities, it’s difficult enough to know what people think.

This article appeared in Summer 2008’s The Skeptic and is reprinted with kind permission.

Reference

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.