Anonymous. Skeptic. Volume 23, Issue 1. 2018.
Have you ever wished you could ask your dog what she’s really thinking? Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a genuine two-way conversation with your cat, hamster, or turtle?
There are people who claim to have the ability to do just that. “Pet psychics”—sometimes called “animal communicators”—say that they can speak with all sorts of animals using telepathic powers. They charge money to read animals’ minds and tell the owners what those animals supposedly said. Many pet psychics also claim they can locate lost pets, heal their illnesses, and even communicate with pets who died long ago. Are these claims realistic?
From Wolves to Lapdogs
Human beings evolved alongside countless other animal species. Our prehistoric ancestors were part of the natural ecosystem. Many of our early relationships with other wild creatures were unfriendly ones. We hunted animals for food. We learned to steal eggs and honey, how to catch fish, where to find the juiciest bugs to snack upon. At the same time, parasites like fleas and mosquitoes used early humans for food. So did sharp toothed larger predators like lions and bears.
Other relationships between prehistoric people and wild animals benefitted both. Ice age wolves learned to hang around human camps for scraps. As the wolves and humans got used to each other, each species got something valuable. The wolves got free food. In return their keen senses helped warn our ancestors about other predators and enemies (especially at night). Over time that relationship grew and changed. Humans raised wolves from pups, fed them, and trained them to help in the hunt. These slowly became dogs-probably the first species to be “domesticated,” or taken out of the wild to be fed and bred for human purposes.
Many other plants and animals were domesticated over thousands of years. People learned to grow crops, ride horses, and breed sheep, cattle, and pigs for wool, milk, and meat.
Humans live in groups. It’s natural for us to form social bonds-with each other, and with our domestic animals I Dogs in particular became not о our guards and helpers, but also something more: they became pets. Ancient Greeks and Romans were wildly fond of their dogs. Some kept pampered lapdogs just as people do today!
The Business of Pets
Pets are animals that are kept for the happiness and companionship they provide to their owners. People in our modern culture form powerful emotional attachments to their pets. They play with them, care about their happiness, worry when they are hurt, and grieve for them when they pass away.
Dogs and cats are often considered “part of the family.” Some are treated almost like human children. Their owners may refer to themselves as “Mommy” and “Daddy” when talking to their “fur babies.” Some pets are even pushed around their neighborhoods in baby strollers.
When so many people feel so much love for their animals, there is a great deal of money to be made. People buy things their pets need. They may pay veterinarians many thousands of dollars to help sick or injured animals. Some pet-lovers also buy luxuries. Businesses sell fancy pet foods, pet grooming, accessories, and “doggy daycare” services. The truly rich may even buy their dog a collar made of diamonds!
Pets are big business. But not everyone in the pet business is responsible, well-informed, and honest. Some sell pet products and services that aren’t worth the money. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that some websites “sell unapproved pet drugs and counterfeit pet products…and sell expired drugs.” These unscrupulous “practices could mean that the products you are buying could be unsafe or ineffective for your pet.” Other people- often well-meaning-claim that they can heal sick pets with far out treatments that scientists know to be useless.
There is an entire industry of people who charge money to communicate telepathically with animals. Some pet owners rely on pet psychics to tell them what their animals need, whether they are healthy, or even where they have gone when they are lost. Can pet psychics really do these things? Are they worth the money?
Unfortunately for pet owners, it’s certain that many self-proclaimed animal psychics are fakers. “I must say that I do not believe that everyone who claims to have this ability is truly being honest,” admits one man who himself claims to talk to animals. “Just like the psychic medium field is plagued with fraud, so is the animal communicator field.” Customers may get “ripped off” by the “inevitable charlatans who pop up in any business to take advantage of people,” warns another supposed pet psychic.
If many pet psychics are scammers, does this mean they are all equally dishonest? And if there are honest pet psychics, can they really do what they claim or are they deceiving themselves?
Today there are thousands of professional pet psychics. They give psychic readings, write books, give classes, and appear on popular television shows. The popularity of pet psychics has been growing for decades. It wasn’t always the case that so many people claimed they could talk to animals, nor were there always so many customers ready to believe them and give them money.
But rumors about animals and mysterious psychic powers existed long before the professional pet psychic business. Could animals be telepathic? (“Telepathy” is another word for “mind reading” or “thought transference.” This is the claimed ability to directly send or receive thoughts or information from one mind to another without going through any of the normal senses.)
“That telepathy is the normal means of communication between animals cannot be doubted,” argued one book in 1893. The author also believed “man has the power, under certain conditions, to enter into telepathic communication with animals” because animal trainers sometimes felt that animals responded to their thoughts.
Others told stories of dogs who mysteriously appeared to know when their masters were coming home. In such cases, claimed one 1920 book, “No other explanation seems possible than telepathy.” The book argued that the master must have thought of his pet, and this “telepathic message from the master was sensed by the dog, and he immediately responded by rushing to meet him.”
“Can Your Dog Read Your Mind?” asked one 1951 Fate magazine article. That author claimed that dogs can hear our thoughts and unspoken commands through a “telepathic link between dogs and their masters.”
In the first half of the 20th century, various paranormal researchers claimed that they had successfully transmitted telepathic commands to dogs, horses, and other creatures- even one-celled animals visible only through a microscope. They argued that all animals must have mysterious psychic abilities. Some said that mice and fish could predict the future in laboratory experiments. A few even claimed that houseplants have telepathic powers!
Paranormal researchers were especially excited by socalled “talking” dogs and horses. These animals seemed able to understand spoken or written questions and give thoughtful answers using barks or hoof-taps. Some appeared to answer questions that were thought but never spoken. Some researchers thought that these animals proved not only that animals could use telepathy, but also that they had minds like ours-minds that could “think in a human way and can express human ideas in human language.”
Giving Up on Psychic Research with Animals
There still are paranormal researchers who think there is evidence that animals have psychic abilities such mysteriously knowing when their owners are returning home. But most serious paranormal researchers eventually lost interest in animal experiments. They realized that laboratory tests did not show strong evidence of mysterious powers. The results were small and inconsistent. Often when other researchers tried the same experiment they got totally different results. Worse, one researcher who claimed incredible results with supposedly psychic mice was caught faking research.
Paranormal researchers had originally speculated that some natural behaviors of wild animals could involve psychic powers. Might termites use telepathy to coordinate building their mounds? Could birds use some psychic sense to migrate over long distances? These paranormal speculations proved unnecessary as scientists learned more about the true natural explanations for those behaviors.
Disappointingly, it turned out that the most famous talking animal-a horse called Clever Hans-could not actually understand language, let alone receive telepathic messages. Without meaning to do so, his owner had accidentally trained him to start tapping his hoof whenever people leaned forward to look at his feet. When they leaned back slightly, the horse would stop tapping. Other apparently psychic animals fooled paranormal researchers, but were later exposed as fakes. Lady the Wonder Horse seemed able to read minds, predict the future, and even locate missing people. But when magician and skeptic Milbourne Christopher visited Lady, he discovered that her abilities were a sneaky trick. Lady’s owner had trained her to press her nose on letters when she was given a secret signal. The answers actually came from the owner, not Lady. They weren’t special psychic knowledge, either. The answers that Lady spelled for Milbourne Christopher merely repeated false information the magician had told the trainer as a test.
“Talking” animal performances are as old as show business. Over the centuries, tricksters have trained countless other animals-talking horses, dogs, and goats, “learned pigs,” fortunetelling geese, and so on-to astound audiences with phony displays of apparent brilliance.
Enter the Pet Psychics
Despite centuries of rumors about psychic animals, paranormal researchers could not find convincing scietific evidence. And despite trained animals like Clever Hans and Lady the Wonder Horse, it’s not realistic to suppose that all species have human-like minds and language abilities.
But combining those two ideas created profitable business opportunities for a new kind of professional psychic: the animal communicator.
At first pet psychics were rare. One early example was former carnival hypnotist Fred Kimball, who gained fame in the 1960S with claims that he could talk to animals. He worked as a pet psychic in California for decades, inspiring others to make similar claims. In newspaper interviews, Kimball bragged that he could chat with dogs, lions, seagulls, earthworms, and even the spirit of a stuffed deer head mounted on a wall. Similarly, a woman named Beatrice Lydecker became well-known in the 1970s as another animal mind reader. Countless others have followed to say that they too could communicate with creatures great and small.
A Word of Caution
Before we dig further into the incredible claims of professional pet psychics, let’s pause to remember something important. We’ve looked at many other bizarre claims in the pages of Junior Skeptic-claims that contradict one another, claims exposed as hoaxes, claims that don’t even make sense. If these have a common theme, it is this: anyone can say anything, but saying doesn’t make it so.
As we consider the claims of pet psychics, we should be especially cautious because the claims themselves are also the only evidence. Even if telepathic communication were possible, we would have no way to measure it or detect when it has (or hasn’t!) taken place. When a psychic says that “Fluffy told me” something or other, we usually can’t know whether the psychic believes what she’s saying or is just making things up. In most cases, there is also no way to check the accuracy of the information a pet psychic provides.
Professional Animal Communicators
Pet psychics or animal communicators (these terms “mean the same thing,” according to the The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pet Psychic Communication) are not animal trainers. Skilled animal trainers are experts at understanding and changing animal behavior. Pet psychics may or may not have experience training animals, but they claim to have something better: an ability to talk directly with animals using telepathy.
According to their claims, telepathy is everywhere. “Animals talk to each other telepathically all the time,” claims The Complete Idiot’s Guide. Our pets can sense our thoughts. Some psychics claim to have a rare and special gift that allows them to take part in those psychic conversations. Some say anyone can learn. Others oddly say both things at the same time.
Clients typically seek out an animal communicator for help solving a problem such as fights between pets, litterbox accidents, or sickness. In most cases, the psychic will begin by asking for information about the pet, such as breed, species, age, and name. Most ask for a photograph. Then, in exchange for a fee, the psychic will supposedly ask the pet what’s really bothering them, and tell the owner what the pet said. Astonishingly, pet psychics do not usually visit the animal in person, but perform their psychic readings with the owner over the phone!
If they’re knowledgeable about animals, pet psychics may offer good, common sense advice that could help with their clients’ problems. In other cases, they may tell their clients that the cause of a behavior problem is something that seems unrealistic and that no one can check. For example, pet psychics sometimes tell clients that a pet is acting out because the animal hates its name! A name can “make an animal feel proud, ashamed, angry, insulted, or pleased,” psychics insist. They claim to “find out what name your animal would like or prefer” by asking them telepathically.
In a YouTube video viewed by several million people, one animal psychic claimed that a black leopard named Diablo “wants that name changed.” Diablo means “devil” in Spanish. The psychic claimed that “he doesn’t like the associations with it-the blackness, the darkness, the diabolical” meaning. Her clients accepted her advice and changed the leopard’s name to “Spirit.” But how likely is it that a leopard could form human-like opinions about the meaning or associations of any word in any human language?
But Does It Work?
“Animal communication might not have double-blind controlled scietific studies to back it up,” admit the authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide. Instead, pet psychics have satisfied customers and “inspirational…stories to offer as proof.”
Indeed, many clients are very impressed by psychic readings of their pets. Does this mean that pet psychics are accurate? Well, sure-sometimes. Pet psychics say a lot things that sound true to their clients. Some “accurate” psychic statements are obvious, such saying that a dog is friendly and full of energy while he is jumping up on people wagging his tail. Other statements are pretty much automatically true, such as saying that a dog enjoys walks or treats. Psychics also say things that are impossible to check-that a cat is only pretending to feel well, for example, or that the spirit of one gerbil has been reborn in the body of another gerbil. But clients tend to accept such statements as accurate, specific, and impressive insights about their pet in particular. Clients also tend to remember accurate statements while forgetting inaccurate statements.
It’s easy to say a bunch of things that sound true. For that reason, it’s much more useful to pay attention to the things that psychics get wrong.
Pet psychics frequently make mistakes, and they know it. “The best psychics in the world are only about 80% accurate,” admits one. The truth is that they often do much worse than that, especially if the situation is different from what they expected.
When skeptical author Karen Stollznow wanted to test a pet psychic for herself, she knew she had one “slight problem. I didn’t have a pet.” So she borrowed a cat from a neighbor and pretended it was hers. The psychic was completely fooled. She claimed the cat “knows that this is his home … He knows that you’re his mummy.” Most pet owners would accept these statements as accurate, but in this case they were completely wrong. The psychic incorrectly guessed the cat’s age. She said he “would stay away from another cat” because he’s “used to being the only one.” But he was actually used to spending all of his time with another cat. The psychic went on to spin a long yarn about the cat’s previous owners, previous names, his “daily struggle for survival” during a difficult period living “on the streets as a feral cat.” In reality, he was adopted into a good home as a kitten. He never had previous owners. He never lived on the streets. Finally, the cat was sound asleep the entire time the psychic was supposedly communicating with him!
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a run-of-the-mill pet psychic made so many errors and mistaken assumptions. Would a celebrity pet psychic be more reliable?
Celebrities Mess Up, Too
By far the best known pet psychic is Sonya Fitzpatrick. Her website boasts that she is the “most experienced and trusted animal communicator in the world.” She is a popular book author who had her own television series on the Animal Planet cable channel, The Pet Psychic. She’s appeared on talk shows many times. But being famous hasn’t kept her from making major mistakes in her readings.
Actor and talk show host Candice Bergen was not at all impressed with Fitzpatrick’s appearance on her show. Bergen felt that “everything she said about my dogs and my cats was wrong, basically.”
When Fitzpatrick appeared on the talk show Live with Kelly and Ryan in 2017, hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest joked and played along with her readings of several different animals live on stage. They did not mention her mistakes-but they certainly noticed one of them.
Her reading of a well-fed little goat mostly just stated the obvious. Fitzpatrick said the goat was “intrigued” as she looked around, that she “loves her food,” and that “she’s never done anything quite like this before, she said.” That’s very likely true! It’s rare for pet goats to receive psychic readings on television talk shows. Also, the goat “said she’s good at chewing things.” Well, yes-she’s a goat!
But Fitzpatrick made a mistake during her reading of a miniature horse. When the animal trotted onto the slippery stage wearing adorable and spotless sneaker-like shoes on his hooves, Fitzpatrick claimed that “He said he doesn’t always wear these.” Seems like a safe guess. However, the owner misunderstood what she said. He agreed to the exact opposite: “Yes, he always wears them!” Without missing a beat, Fitzpatrick smoothly continued, “He said, I always wear those,’ he said- T quite like them!”‘
The celebrity pet psychic slipped up again when she performed her reading on Ryan Seacrest’s own dog. Fitzpatrick suffers from hearing loss, and so may have misheard the dog’s name as “George” or “Georgie.” She repeatedly used the words “he,” “his,” and “him” throughout the reading. However, Seacrest’s dog is a female. Her name is Georgia.
Do Psychics Eat Meat?
You might think that people who claim to have lengthy conversations and friendships with cows and chickens would think twice before ordering wings or a burger. Indeed, some animal communicators do choose to be vegetarians (avoiding meat) or vegans (avoiding meat, milk, and eggs). “When someone asks me why I don’t eat meat,” said one supposed psychic, “I reply, ‘I won’t eat anything that I can talk to.'” Sonya Fitzpatrick is another who does not eat meat, saying “there is no difference between eating a cat to me than eating a cow.” This would make sense if we were to believe Fitzpatrick’s stories about her childhood. She recalled that she “would sit and chat for hours” with three geese until these “beatiful friends” were killed for food. According to her book What the Animals Tell Me, “it was a horror. I felt all the pain and terror the geese had felt.”
Yet other psychics completely disagree. Dozens of animal communicators contributed dozens of answers to one magazine story about eating meat. Those who do eat meat claimed-rather conveniently-that animals have personally assured them that they don’t mind being killed and eaten. Indeed, some animals “really appreciate being able to nourish others with their bodies,” one psychic said. “I have questioned chickens,” said another, and the chickens replied that they are “not opposed” to dying “for the good of someone’s meal.” An “exceptionally wise and witty sheep” supposedly told one animal communicator that sheep “forgive” people for eating lamb. Apparently, sheep “place no value on physical life” because they will continue to exist as spirits afterward. One psychic even claimed that cattle excitedly fatten themselves for slaughter while proudly proclaiming, “I am food.”
Bizarrely, quite a few pet psychics said that they feel comfortable eating meat because they can also converse with plants! They claim that plants are just as intelligent, aware, and talkative as animals, even though plants do not have brains. “Plants have feelings, too,” one argued. “If I couldn’t eat something that I could talk to, there would be nothing for me to eat!”
Why is there so much drastic disagreement between people who can supposedly talk to animals directly? One obvious possibility is that these people cannot actually communicate telepathically with animals (or plants, for that matter). If their psychic powers are not real, they would probably eat what they like and invent their own reasons for doing so.
Nowhere to Be Found
Another major reason to suspect that pet psychics do not have telepathic conversations with animals is that telepathy probably does not exist.
Paranormal researchers have spent more than a century trying to prove the existence of telepathy and other psychic powers. Their experiments have not convinced other scientists that psychic powers are real. The evidence just isn’t strong enough. Instead, the evidence is so weak and unreliable that most scientists are convinced that telepathy must not exist.
But even if psychic powers were real, decades of paranormal research have certainly proven one thing: it’s really, really hard to arrange a reliable demonstration! Not one person has ever been proven to have any such ability. Instead, many claimed psychics have been exposed as frauds. Surely it would be easy to gather strong scientific evidence if all those thousands of pet psychics truly could do everything they say. After all, they claim to be 80 or 90 percent accurate. They also claim they can chat with far away animals as easily as making a long distance phone call. Why not just take a dog into an unusual room in some distant city and show her some unusual objects. At the same time, have a psychic in a different city telepathically ask the dog what she sees. A genuine pet psychic should know what the dog is seeing and doing. Is she chewing a ball or a slipper? Is she awake or asleep? Is she indoors or out? It would not be difficult to show that the dog and the psychic were talking to each other. And what a wonderful and exciting thing that would be to discover!
The truth, however, is that pet psychics do not want their claims to be tested. As one says on her website, “if your interest only lies in ‘testing’ me to prove whether I am the ‘real-deal’ or not, then I am probably not the right Animal Communicator for you.” She asks her clients not to give her a “trick question as a test.”
Would a person with genuine psychic powers be afraid of trick questions? Why not encourage clients to test her in order to demonstrate the accuracy of her readings? But trick questions or false information can expose tricksters who merely pretend to be psychic.
More Reasons For Doubt
Another way to examine the claims of psychics is to ask whether they agree with one another. In fact pet psychics do tend to agree about some things. This would make sense if they were all describing the same genuine powers and experiences. But we would also expect some consistency from fakers doing similar performances for similar audiences using similar techniques.
For example, pet psychics often claim that they’re talking with animals who seem completely unaware of the conversation. Psychics say this isn’t a problem, because it is “very common for animals to have a telepathic conversation while sleeping or to appear that they are not paying attention at all.” That’s awfully convenient, but not very believable. It’s usually obvious when our pets the paying attention to us, and equally obvious when they’re not!
Interestingly, pet psychics frequently disagree with each other about basic claims. This is exactly what we’d expect if they were each making up the details of their own stories.
Perhaps most important, pet psychics do not agree about how animals talk during their telepathic communications. Some claim that “animals don’t think in a language like we do at all,” while others insist that animals “speak articulately and logically.” Some say animals “communicate multi-dimensionally” (whatever that means) or speak in a “universal language of energy that all beings speak.” Some say animals communicate mostly in pictures or feelings, while others claim to hear lengthy speeches expressed in words and sentences. Some psychics say they “hear animals’ voices in English because the language is common to them and me,” or even that they have problems talking to animals who are not fluent in English.
Too Many Claims
It’s easy to imagine a world where brains could directly exchange information. That notion is common in fiction. For example, telepathy is the superpower of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men comics and books. It appears that telepathy does not exist in reality, but lots of other strange things do. If there were strong scientific evidence for telepathy, we’d have to accept it as just one of many weird things about the natural world.
But pet psychics do not merely claim to be mind readers. That would be far fetched by itself, but pet psychics make many additional claims that are even more outrageous-and even less likely to be true.
They claim we are surrounded by “energy…the life force of the universe. It flows around us and through us.” If this sounds a lot like the make-believe power of the Force in Star Wars, it’s because they literally say that it is like the Force! Using this energy, they claim to be able to contact any animal anywhere in the world just by looking at a photograph. They say that all animals have minds like ours, no matter how small or simple their brains. Cats, llamas, chickens, turtles, and even insects are claimed to be equally capable of human-like language, emotions, and complex thoughts. Some psychics even claim to read the “moods (yes moods) of microbes.”
Many claim they can also communicate with plants. “Some of my deepest, wisest and most joyful conversations have been with plants in my garden and especially the tree beings,” one psychic boasted. Others even say they can converse with rocks! “I’ve had long discussions with vegetables, fruits, rocks, mountains,” said one.
Nor do pet psychics limit their conversations to our world. They claim that the spirits of pets continue to exist in an afterlife, and claim to have conversations with pets who passed away years ago. These spirits can supposedly return to Earth in different bodies-sometimes reincarnating years before they died! Animal spirits can choose to return as different species in different lifetimes for a “variety of interesting experiences or just plain fun…enjoying the adventures and aesthetics of different life forms.” Many psychics claim to be surrounded by angels and human and animal “spirit guides.” Sonya Fitzpatrick claimed that “an angel with large wings” appeared to tell her she had a special mission. Two weeks later “St. Francis, the patron saint of animals” supposedly appeared in her dressing room to say, “I am going to be working with you to help and heal animals.”
Fitzpatrick writes that many clients consult pet psychics “out of desperation” about their pets’ behavior or health problems. Psychics say they can help with both. Many recommend unscientific medical potions, such as “Bach flower essences.” These are claimed to “contain the energy essences of different flowers, distilled into an alcohol base (such as brandy).” A few drops will “help the animal to heal on both an energetic and an emotional level” claims The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pet Psychic Communication.
Many psychics claim they can diagnose and heal health problems by laying their hands on an animal, or waving their hands in the air, or just by thinking hard. For example, one psychic said she detected an “energy blockage” indicating an unsuspected spinal injury. To head this, the psychic “stroked the air a few inches above his body…to relieve stress in his spine.” Fitzpatrick claims that she does her “most powerful healing” on distant animals during the night using “mind energy.” How? She looks at photographs of her clients’ pets… and then she goes to sleep! Apparently clients “sometimes feel a bit strange about the absent healing I do during the night.” However, she assures us, “It’s quite simple really.” It does sound simple-it sounds like charging money to simply snooze.
Fitzpatrick also claims an ability to do “psychic surgery.” For example, she told one client that a cat’s stomach and intestines had been damaged. To repair this, Fitzpatrick supposedly summoned the spirit of a doctor. With this spirit’s help, she “visualized a laser beam cutting the cat open” and “pushed energy through the cat’s intestines with the golden light, pushing out all the sickness.” In another case she claimed to remove parasitic worms from a cat. She claimed her “healing energy” made the worms vanish.
Pet Psychics Versus Veterinarians
Psychics make bold claims to diagnose illness and give advice about the health and sickness of animals. “With the help of my guides,” Fitzpatrick boasts, “I am able to determine exactly what is bothering the animal and whether it can be healed. I do not have to guess.”
But veterinarians are not always impressed with medical advice from pet psychics. As specialist veterinary surgeon Erinne Branter told Junior Skeptic, pet psychics sometimes “guide owners down roads where they refuse to listen to qualified doctors.” Branter described the frustration of trying to treat animals while so-called psychics are giving the owners conflicting advice over the phone. Owners sometimes chose not to treat their animal or to delay treatment because of advice from a psychic. This can be harmful for animal patients.
Branter remembers one case in particular, in which a suffering cat “was very old, could not walk, had bed sores, kidney and liver disease and would no longer eat.” The staff at the hospital felt terrible because they “knew he had no quality of life-just pain at that point.” The vets knew it was time for the poor animal to be “euthanized” (put down as an act of mercy). Sadly the owner refused to end the cat’s suffering because of “recommendations from a pet psychic that he still wanted to live’.”
Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence. As veterinarian Brennen McKenzie of the SkeptVet blog recalls,
I once saw a dog with bone cancer in severe pain whose owners denied the obvious symptoms of limping and crying and were convinced their [unscientific] homeopathic pain medication was working, all because according to a pet psychic the dog said he was comfortable. And I’ve seen terminally ill dogs suffering terribly whose owners refused to consider euthanasia because an animal communicator told them their pet wanted to stay with them longer.
Real Animals Are Not Cartoon Characters
One very important reason to think that pet psychics do not have genuine telepathy is that the conversations they describe sound unrealistic to the point of being silly. Pet psychics write books full of things animals supposedly said: dogs gossiping about their owners, jealous lizards, turtles hatching schemes, bunnies swooning with romance. The animals in these stories sound like the talking animal characters in cartoons and animated movies. In films like Pixar’s Finding Dory or Disney’s The Jungle Book, animals have natural animal bodies and some animal behaviors—fish swim, tigers hunt, wolves run in packs, and so on. But otherwise the talking animal characters act, speak, and think like human beings.
According to pet psychics, the real world is just like an animated children’s movie. All around us, animals are constantly conversing in human-like language about human-like ideas. “All animals speak this universal language, even species such as birds, turtles, and fish,” claims Sonya Fitzpatrick. We should think of every animal like a “friend of your own species,” advises one psychic book, “not as something different from you.”
But real animals are not cartoon characters. Animals are not humans in different bodies. They are themselves. Each species has its own unique way of being in the world. They have different senses, different bodies, different brains, and different natural behaviors. To pretend that animals are just like us is to ignore their true nature and deny their uniqueness.
This is exactly what psychics do when they imagine animals caring about things that only humans care about. It’s ridiculous to imagine a dog replying “No thank you. I have to watch my weight” when offered a treat, as one psychic does. In another case, a psychic claimed that a male leopard expressed a “great sense of care and concern” for two young cubs kept in another enclosure. That heart warming sentiment sounds believable because we ourselves feel protective toward adorable baby animals. However, the psychic’s claim ignores the natural predatory behavior of leopards. Rather than feeling “care and concern,” adult male leopards instinctively hunt and kill unrelated cubs! Of course that sounds brutal to us. Were not leopards! But leopards are leopards-not people.
If psychics truly could make telepathic contact with animals, they would hear animal thoughts about animal things.
Pet psychics imagine that every species is intelligent in the same way that we are. “When I hear an ‘expert’ declaring certain animals are dumb, it makes me sad,” Fitzpatrick says, “because I know from firsthand conversations with many different species how intelligent animals are.”
How intelligent, according to psychics? One said she received spiritual teachings from a llama as wise as a “Tibetan monk on a mountaintop!” Another psychic’s book includes a page-long spiritual message supposedly delivered by a cricket! “I chose to be in this form so I can bring awareness and honor to the insects,” explained the cricket in a speech about the web of life.
What Does Science Say?
We don’t need to settle for psychics’ cartoonish fantasies about animal intelligence. Scientists have studied real animal behavior and intelligence for decades. They’ve confirmed what we all understand: lots of animals are smart. But each species is unique. We are the only species exactly like ourselves.
Some behavior that looks intelligent takes hardly any brainpower. Do termites use human-like thinking and planning when they build skyscraper-like termite mounds? Well, no. Termites build their mounds automatically, like robots. They don’t need brains powerful enough to understand what they’re doing.
David McFarland, a scientific expert on animal behavior, explains how this works. Termites leave a natural chemical scent (a “pheromone”) in each tiny ball of mud they collect to build their nest. At first, “the termites deposit their mud balls at random.” Then other termites are attracted to the chemical scent. They instinctively place more mud balls near the first few. This adds more of the chemical scent, which attracts more termites. Slowly the mud balls pile up into mud towers, which lean toward each other to form arches, and eventually grow into a towering termite mound.
Other animals need greater intelligence to do more complicated things, such as avoiding predators, hunting prey, or learning how to forage for food. The smartest animals, such as humans, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and wolves tend to be species that live in social groups. They use extra brainpower to cooperate, communicate, and maintain social relationships with the other members of their pack, herd, or community.
Many animals have impressive and surprising mental abilities. For example, sheep have the ability to recognize the faces of other sheep and even humans. They can associate those faces with past experiences and remember them for years. Many animals can communicate useful information to others of their species. Young vervet monkeys must learn to use and react to different alarm calls for a variety of different predators. When they hear the “leopard” warning, the monkeys run for the trees; when they hear the “eagle” warning they look up or seek cover. Many animal species use tools. Sea otters use rocks to smash shells; chimpanzees use rocks to crack nuts. Elephants use branches to swat flies and scratch themselves. Some animals even make tools. Chimpanzees carefully prepare twigs to stick into termite holes in order to fish out tasty termites.
Awareness and Language
Many animals behave in smart ways. But is it true, as psychics claim, that every dog, lizard, chicken, and snail is a rational thinking being with self-awareness (conscious awareness of their own existence)?
We humans are one animal species that does have selfawareness. Consider these questions: do you exist? Do you have a mind? What does it feel like to be you? You might not be able to explain it, but you know that you exist and what that feels like. Experiments have revealed that some other animal species probably do have a sense of self. Researchers secretly place harmless marks on the bodies of animals, in spots the animals can’t usually see. Then they show the animals a mirror. If the animals touch the mark on their own bodies when they notice the reflection, it is thought to show that they recognize themselves in the mirror. Humans, dolphins, and chimpanzees are among the species to have passed the mirror test. However, this ability seems to be rare.
Psychics also claim that all animals can express ideas in language the same way humans do. Scientists have learned that isn’t true. Certainly there are animals smart enough to learn a lot of words. Experimenters have taught some dogs to respond to hundreds of words. Chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught to “speak” hundreds of words using sign language or keyboards full of special symbols. But apes seem unable to learn to make sentences of more than two or three words. They don’t seem to understand grammar of the kind human languages use-the sentence-constructing rules that make “man bites dog” mean something different than “dog bites man.” Also, apes who are taught sign language rarely start conversations with their trainers or ask questions. (Other than humans, dolphins seem to be the animals with the strongest ability to understand grammar.)
Pet psychics claim to hear lengthy speeches from crickets. The scientific reality is that even the great apes-our closest relatives in the animal kingdom-do not have the ability to converse with us in a truly human way.
All in Your Head
If pet psychics cannot actually do what they claim, why do they say that they can? It’s certain that some simply pretend to have powers in order to scam money from pet owners. The most successful pet psychics charge hundreds of dollars per hour for their services, without having to spend anything on fancy offices, university degrees, or really any expenses at all. It’s a profitable racket.
However, some pet psychics probably do sincerely believe that they have abilities that they do not actually possess. How can that be? We can find clues in the instructions they give to other people who would like to learn how to communicate telepathically with animals.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pet Psychic Communication says the first step is to believe. “If you don’t believe in pet psychic communication, your brain will erect barriers to your own telepathic abilities,” warn the authors. Readers are told to release all “skepticism, doubt, or negativity.” Always be cautious when anyone tells you to set aside your critical thinking skills and simply believe without evidence!
Imagining Psychic Powers
But it gets worse. Pet psychics agree that the essential ingredient is imagination. “If you hope to master telepathic communication, you must learn to trust your feelings and imagination as children do,” writes Sonya Fitzpatrick, adding, “Remember: Trust your imagination!”
The Complete Idiot’s Guide advises animal telepathy students to begin by thinking questions at an animal and then literally just imagining that they reply. “You know how animals in cartoons always talk. Just imagine the animal you are trying to talk to is answering you. Write down your imagined answers.” Likewise, in her influential book Animal Talk: Interspecies Telepathic Communication, Penelope Smith tells readers to say hello to an animal and then “Imagine/hear the ‘hello’ coming back. Practice this until you are certain you can imagine it … Use the power of your imagination.”
If telepathy students have to imagine the answers, how are they supposed to know if an animal “really” answers them telepathically? They don’t. The Complete Idiot’s Guide describes one beginner telepath who started talking to animals in “conversations she enjoyed, but wasn’t entirely sure weren’t products of her imagination.” According to the authors, telepathy is supposed to feel that way. “We guarantee that at first you will think, ‘It feels like I am talking to myself.’ This is exactly what it feels like in the beginning,” the authors say. “Remember that the answers are subtle and might feel like they are coming out of your imagination. You might feel unsure about whether you are just making up the answers, but rest assured, this is part of the process,” the book insists.
Fitzpatrick agrees that whatever you happen to imagine in your head is telepathy in action:
If you have sent a telepathic communication to your pet, then suddenly discover an unusual idea or picture forming in your brain, or hear a response spoken inside your head, you have succeeded. Trust your imagination and do not dismiss these unfamiliar images and feelings out of hand.
If we can’t tell the difference between having a telepathic conversation and merely imagining one, what on Earth good would it be to have telepathy? How would anyone even know if they were telepathic?
But that brings us back to that suspicious first step: in books and seminars, pet psychics tell students to begin by simply believing. Believe. Imagine. And then one more thing: don’t try to “test your own abilities” to find out if your experiences are real! “Practice without the pressure of tests can help communication to flow more freely, and validation will come to you soon enough,” says The Complete Idiot’s Guide. “You’ll see.”
These instructions are perfect for fooling people into believing they have special powers. It’s not surprising that some students come to believe just that. Over time, say the books, their imagined conversations will begin to feel real. Then it’s only a matter of time until some other pet owner feels surprised and impressed by something the student imagines that an animal said. (“Wow! How could you know Rover has a blue bowl?”) A few such experiences will convince many people that they do indeed have psychic abilities.