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Psychic Pets and Pet Psychics

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 26.6, November / December 2002

Many believe that the bond between man and animals, known from great antiquity, includes extrasensory perception (ESP). They cite anecdotal evidence, controversial research data, and the claims of alleged psychics. During over three decades of investigating the paranormal, I have often encountered and reviewed such evidence. I have written about "talking" animals, appeared with a "pet psychic" on The Jerry Springer Show, analyzed alleged paranormal communications between people and animals (both living and dead), and even visited a spiritualists’ pet cemetery. Here is a look at some of what I have found.

"Talking" Animals

Alleged animal prodigies—various "educated," "talking," and "psychic" creatures—have long been exhibited. In seventeenth-century France, for instance, a famous "talking" horse named Morocco seemed to possess such remarkable powers, including the ability to do mathematical calculations, that he was charged with "consorting with the Devil." However, he saved his own and his master’s life when he knelt, seemingly repentant, before church authorities.

In the latter eighteenth century a "Learned Pig" and a "Wonderful Intelligent Goose" appeared in London. The porker spelled names, solved arithmetic problems, and even read thoughts by selecting, from flashcards, words thought of by audience members (Jay 1986). The goose, advertised as "The greatest Curiosity ever witnessed," performed such feats as divining a selected playing card, discovering secretly selected numbers, and telling time "to a Minute" by a spectator’s own watch (Christopher 1962, 35).

Other prodigies were Munito the celebrated dog, Toby "The Sapient Pig" (who could "Discover a Person’s Thoughts"), and a "scientific" Spanish pony who shared billing with "Two Curious Birds." The latter were "much superior in knowledge to the Learned Pig" and "the first of the kind ever seen in the World." Such animals typically performed their feats by stamping a hoof or paw a certain number of times or by spelling out answers using alphabet and number cards (Christopher 1962; Jay 1986).

In 1904 a German horse named Clever Hans provoked an investigation into his wonderful abilities. "Learned professors were convinced," wrote Milbourne Christopher (1970, 46), "that Hans could work out his own solutions to mathematical problems and had a better knowledge of world affairs than most fourteen-year-old children." However, psychologist Oskar Pfungst soon determined that questioners—including Hans’s trainer—were providing unintentional cueing. Pfungst discovered that Hans began stamping when the questioner leaned forward to observe the horse’s hoof and only stopped when that person relaxed after the correct number was given. Pfungst even played the role of Hans by rapping with his hand while friends posed questions. Of twenty-five questioners, all but two gave the beginning and ending cue without being aware of doing so (Christopher 1970; Sebeok 1986).

Of course, trainers could deliberately cue their animals and practice other deceptions, such as secretly gleaning information that the animal would then reveal "psychically." In 1929, the man who later coined the term ESP, Dr. J.B. Rhine, was taken in by a supposedly telepathic horse named Lady Wonder. Rhine believed Lady actually had psychic power and he set up a tent near her Virginia barn so he could scientifically study her apparent abilities. Lady was trained to operate a contraption—somewhat like an enlarged typewriter—consisting of an arrangement of levers that activated alphabet cards. Lady would sway her head over the levers, then nudge one at a time with her nose to spell out answers to queries (Christopher 1970; Jay 1986).

Magician Milbourne Christopher (1970) had an opportunity to assess Lady’s talents on a visit in 1956. As a test, Christopher gave Lady’s trainer, Mrs. Claudia Fonda, a false name, "John Banks." (The real Banks had exhibited the "talking" horse, Morocco, mentioned earlier.) When Christopher subsequently inquired of Lady, "What is my name?," the mare obligingly nudged the levers to spell out B-A-N-K-S.

Another test involved writing down numbers which Lady then divined. Given a narrow pad and a long pencil, Christopher suspected Mrs. Fonda might be using a professional mentalists’ technique known as "pencil reading," which involves subtly observing the movements of the pencil to learn what was written. So he pretended to write a bold "9" but, while going through the motions, only touched the paper on the downstroke to produce a "1." Although he concentrated on the latter number, Lady indicated the answer was 9.

In short, as the noted magician and paranormal investigator observed, Mrs. Fonda gave a "slight movement" of her training rod whenever Lady’s head was at the correct letter. That was enough to cue the swaying mare to stop and nudge that lever. Thus, Lady was revealed to be a well-trained animal, not a telepathic one (Christopher 1970; Nickell 1989). No doubt the same was true of her predecessors, whose exhibitors were often performing magicians.

In one case a "talking" animal was allegedly just that: a mongoose who spoke in complete sentences. Gef, as he was called, not only spoke English but many foreign phrases as well. He appeared in 1931 on the Irving farm on the Isle of Man (in the Irish Sea) but was never reliably seen. Instead, he tossed stones at unwelcome visitors, "urinated" through cracks in walls, and—although he was partial to the family’s twelve-year-old daughter, Viorrey, and allegedly lived in her room, he sometimes mischievously locked her inside with a lock that, reportedly, could only be accessed from outside the room. Psychic investigators supposed Gef was a poltergeist or perhaps a ghost.

Not surprisingly, there were skeptics, including many fellow residents on the Isle of Man, who believed Viorrey was playing pranks. They accused her of using ventriloquism and other tricks, the effects of which were hyped by family members, reporters in search of a story, and credulous paranormalists. In fact, a reporter for the Isle of Man Examiner once caught Viorrey making a squeaking noise although her father had insisted the sound came from elsewhere in the room (Psychic Pets 1996, 72-83). In part the case recalls the celebrated magician/ventriloquist Signor Antonio Blitz who enjoyed strolling through a village and engaging in conversation with horses tied at hitching posts. Reportedly, he also "once discussed the state of the weather with a dead mackerel in a fish market and almost created a panic" (Christopher 1970, 49).

Psychic Pets

Trickery aside, what about reports of apparent animal ESP? Anecdotal evidence suggests some animals may have precognitive awareness of various types of natural catastrophes, becoming agitated before earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, and other events. However, the creatures may actually be responding to subtle sensory factors—like variations in air pressure and tremors in the ground—that are beyond the range of human perception (Guiley 1991).

Something of the sort may explain some instances of apparent animal prescience. For example, a Kentucky friend of mine insists that his dogs seem to know when he has decided to go hunting, exhibiting a marked excitement even though they are lodged some distance away from the house. However, it seems possible that they are either responding to some unintended signal (such as recognizing certain noises associated with his getting ready for a hunting trip) or that he is selectively remembering those occasions when the dogs’ excitement happens to coincide with his intentions. Another friend says he once had dogs who seemed to know when he was going to take them for a walk, but he decided he must have unconsciously signaled them (such as by glancing in the direction of their hanging leashes).

There is also considerable anecdotal evidence of animals supposedly knowing when their masters were about to suffer harm or were being harmed (Guiley 1991). The operable word here is anecdotal: such tales are notoriously untrustworthy. For example, they may be subject to selective recall, so that after a death, say, the deceased’s dog is recalled to have "acted strangely" sometime before; other instances of the animals’ odd behavior, that did not coincide with the event, are conveniently forgotten. Additional problems with anecdotal evidence include the narrator’s ego and bias, memory distortion, and other factors.

Scientific tests of animal "psi" (a parapsychological term applied to ESP and psychokinesis) remain controversial (Ostrander and Schroeder 1971; Guiley 1991). Rigorous experimental protocols designed to exclude normal explanations (such as sensory cueing) tend not to show evidence for psi. An example is the report by Richard Wiseman et al., "Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the 'psychic pet' phenomenon," published in the British Journal of Psychology.

The researchers responded to a suggestion by Rupert Sheldrake that just such a study be undertaken, and it followed a formal test of the alleged phenomenon by an Austrian television company. That test focused on an English woman and her dog and seemed successful. Wiseman et al. (1998) conducted four experiments designed to rule out the pet’s responding to routine or picking up sensory cues (either from the returning owner or from others aware of the expected time of return), as well as people’s selective memories and selective matching, and other possible normal explanations.

In all four experiments the dog failed to detect accurately when her owner set off for home, contradicting claims made on the basis of the previous (Austrian TV) study. The experiments suggested "that selective memory, multiple guesses and selective matching could often have sufficient scope to give an owner the impression of a paranormal effect."

Pet Psychics

People who are both devoted to their pets and credulous about the paranormal may easily fall prey to unsubstantiated claims of pet psychics. Some profess to treat animals’ emotional problems, for example, after supposedly communicating with them by ESP or other paranormal means, such as through astrology or assistance from the seer’s "spirit guides" (MacDougall 1983; Cooper and Noble 1996).

Having studied pet psychics at work—including Gerri Leigh (with whom I appeared on Springer) and Sonya Fitzpatrick (star of the Animal Planet channel’s The Pet Psychic)—I find that they impress audiences with some very simple ploys. Consciously or not, they are essentially using the same fortunetellers’ technique—"cold reading"—that is used for human subjects. This is an artful method of gleaning information from someone while giving the impression it is obtained mystically (Hyman 1977). After all, it is the pet owners, not the pets themselves, who "validate" the pronouncements. Here is a look at some of the common cold-reading techniques used by pet psychics.

  1. Noting the obvious. Fitzpatrick (2002) visits an animal clinic with a couple and their infant daughter to tell them which dog is right for their family. After the selection is narrowed to three choices, each is brought out in turn. The first is ambivalent; the second ignores everyone; and the third, Patty, greets the couple and nuzzles the child. Sonya writes her choice on a slip of paper and it proves to be the same the couple made: Patty. The audience applauds: Patty was apparently their choice too! (I know she was mine!)
  2. Making safe statements. Fitzpatrick (2002) announces that one pooch "says" he wants to go out more often, and the dog’s owners accept the assertion. Similarly, Gerri Leigh (1992) tells the owner of an outgoing little dog, who immediately licks Leigh’s hand, that the animal "fears no one"; but then she quickly adds that it is "not an unconditional lover." She continues by stating that the pet is "independent" and "not a yes dog." Such virtually universal declarations are not apt to be challenged.
  3. Asking questions. Psychics frequently seem to provide information when they are in reality fishing for it. The asking of a question may, if it is correct, credit the reader with a hit; otherwise it will seem an innocent query. For instance, Fitzpatrick (2002) asks a dog owner, "When was there someone who was with him who went away?" (Unfortunately, this is too good a hit, since the young woman seems puzzled and replies that it could have been various persons—possibly, one imagines, former boyfriends or other acquaintances.) Questioning also keeps the reader from proceeding too far down a wrong path and allows for mid-course correction.
  4. Offering vague statements that most people can apply specifically to themselves. Alleged psychics take advantage of what is known as "the Barnum effect"—after showman P. T. Barnum who strove to provide something for everyone (French et al. 1991). They learn that people will respond to a vague, generalized statement by trying to fit it to their own situation. Thus Fitzpatrick (2002) tells the owner of a pet iguana that the creature had experienced "a move." Now most people can associate a "move" with their pet: either when they acquired it, when they changed residences, or when they left it with someone to go on vacation, etc. Thus the pet psychic was credited with a hit (never mind that she incorrectly referred to the female iguana as "he").
  5. Returning messages to animals. People who are convinced pets give information to psychics may be willing to believe the reverse. Thus Fitzpatrick (2002) claims to give animals "messages"—for example a clarification of something by the owner—by silently concentrating for a moment.
These and other techniques help convince the credulous that pet psychics have telepathic or clairvoyant or other powers. Some, like New York psychic Christa Carl, even claim to use these powers to help locate lost pets. Carl gained notoriety "for being called in to find Tabitha, the cat who disappeared on a Tower Air flight." Actually, my reading of the case is that Carl did not find the cat but that the cat found Carl—or rather found her owner. Tabitha was known to be hiding on the airplane and, after twelve days and thirty thousand miles of flight that engendered negative publicity and a threatened lawsuit, the airline grounded the plane so the animal could be retrieved. The cat eventually came out to her owner—and to Carl, who claimed credit. That was for supposedly helping the animal resolve a problem with "one of her past lives" and "showing her how to come out" of the plane’s drop ceiling (Cooper and Noble 1996).

To find other lost animals, Carl claims she uses "visualization" to help them "find their way home." Thus, if an animal returns, Carl can claim credit; if not, she has a ready rationalization: some animals do not wish to come back and, says Carl, "I have to respect the animal’s wishes" (Cooper and Noble 1996).

Some pet psychics offer still other services. For example, Oklahoma "equine parapsychologist" Karen Hamel-Noble claims to heal horses. She uses her hands to detect "the source of weakness in their energy fields"—i.e., their imagined auras—then supplies compensating "energy" from herself (Cooper and Noble 1996). However, since auras remain scientifically unproved and tests of psychics’ abilities to see them have repeatedly failed (Nickell 2000), Hamel-Noble’s claims require proof, not just her feelings and assertions. Perhaps the animals’ perceived illnesses are merely responding to their natural healing mechanisms and the medical treatments Hamel-Noble provides them—including penicillin injections (Cooper and Noble 1996).

Pet Mediums

In the popular imagination, animals, like their human counterparts, may continue their existence after death, there being many reports of animal apparitions. And since pets are loved and often regarded as members of a family, it is not surprising that people occasionally experience "visitations" from their departed animal friends just as they do their human ones. However, these seem to have similar explanations to those of other apparitional experiences. For example, some who hear a dog’s phantom bark or footsteps, or see (as one reported) "a shadow jump up on the bed," do so just after rousing from sleep (Cohen 1984) and may thus be having "waking dreams." These are common hallucinations that occur in the twilight between being awake and asleep and exhibit content that "may be related to the dreamer’s current concerns" (Baker 1990). Similarly, apparitions that are seen during wakefulness tend to occur when one is tired, daydreaming (perhaps while performing routine work), or the like (Nickell 2001a, 291-292).

With the advent of spiritualism—the belief that the dead can be contacted—certain self-styled "mediums" began to offer themselves as intermediaries with the spirit realm. Some produced bogus spirit "materializations" and other physical phenomena, but these were frequently exposed as tricks by investigators like magician Harry Houdini. Today’s mediums tend to limit themselves to purely "mental phenomena," i.e., the use of "psychic ability" to obtain messages from "the other side."

Such mediums—like James Van Praagh, John Edward, Rosemary Altea, George Anderson, and Sylvia Browne—appear to rely largely on the old psychics’ standby, cold reading. In fact Edward (real name John MaGee Jr.) came to mediumship as an erstwhile fortuneteller at psychic fairs and now styles himself a "psychic medium." But on Dateline NBC he was caught cheating: attempting to pass off some previously gained knowledge as spirit revelation (Nickell 2001b).

Mediums like Edward and Van Praagh occasionally mention a pet—usually a dog—in a reading. Given the Barnum effect (discussed earlier), this usually gets a hit. For instance, on Larry King Live (February 26, 1999), Van Praagh told a caller: "I'm also picking up something on a dog. So I don't know why, but I'm picking up a dog around you." Note the vagueness of the reference—not even an indication of whether the animal is dead or alive or what link it might have to the person. But the caller offers the validation, "Oh, my dog died two years ago."

Some pet psychics, like Christa Carl, conduct "séance readings" for animals who have "passed over." Asked to give an example of such a séance, she replied (in Cooper and Noble 1996, 102):

Brandy, a dog, had been placed in a kennel by her owner when she got married. She broke away from the kennel and got killed.

Her owner called me and told me she was having a hard time and wanted to communicate with Brandy. When I did the reading with Brandy, I learned from her that she didn't know why she had been put in the kennel. She had felt abandoned, unloved, uncared for.

Her owner should have told her ahead of time why she needed to put her in a kennel. I explained it to Brandy, and now she’s at peace.

Of course, there is not the slightest bit of evidence that the spirit was contacted or that, in fact, it existed anywhere other than in the imagination of Christa Carl and, of course, the dog’s grieving, guilt-ridden, and credulous owner.

Such seems invariably the problem with claims involving psychic pets and pet psychics. Based on anecdotal evidence—wonderful tales of psychic and mediumistic success—they are not supported by scientific investigation.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.