The reX files

August 27, 1999

Is the idea of a telepathic tabby completely barking? Rupert Sheldrake says his experiments prove that pets have paranormal powers, but Susan Blackmore, right, is one of several academics disputing his methods.

According to recent random household surveys in England and the United States, many pet owners believe their animals display signs of telepathy. An average of 48 per cent of dog owners and 33 per cent of cat owners said their pets responded to their thoughts. Some pets even seem able to tell when a particular person is on the telephone before the receiver has been picked up. When the telephone rings in the household of a noted emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley, his wife knows when her husband is on the other end of the line because Whiskins, their silver tabby cat, rushes to the telephone and paws at the receiver. "Many times he succeeds in taking it off the hook and makes appreciative miaows that are clearly audible to my husband at the other end," she says. "If someone else telephones, Whiskins takes no notice."

People experienced with animals tell stories that suggest the existence of forms of communication at present unknown to science. Surprisingly little research has been done on these phenomena. Biologists have been inhibited by the taboo against "the paranormal", and psychic researchers and parapsychologists have largely confined their attention to humans.

For the past five years, with the help of hundreds of animal trainers, shepherds, blind people with guide dogs, veterinarians and pet owners, I have been investigating some of these unexplained powers of animals, powers of perception that can be grouped into three categories: telepathy; sense of direction; and premonitions.

The commonest kinds of animal telepathy are:

* anticipation of owners going away;

* anticipation of being fed;

* cats disappearing when their owners are planning to take them to the vet;

* dogs knowing when their owners are planning to take them for a walk;

* animals that get excited when their owner is on the telephone, even before the phone has been answered.

As sceptics rightly point out, some of these responses could be explained in terms of routine expectations, subtle sensory cues, coincidence and selective memory, or put down to the imagination of doting pet owners. To test these possibilities, you have to do experiments.

I and my colleagues have concentrated on the phenomenon of dogs that know when their owners are coming home (see below). Other kinds of animal telepathy can also be investigated experimentally, such as the apparent ability of dogs to know when they are going to be taken for walks. In these experiments the dogs are kept in a separate room and videotaped. Their owner, at a randomly selected time, thinks about taking the dog for a walk and then five minutes later does so. Our experiments have shown dogs exhibiting obvious excitement when their owner is thinking about taking them out, although they could not have known this by normal sensory means.

Animals' sense of direction is another hitherto unexplained power. Dogs and cats can make their way home from unfamiliar places many miles away. Their ability to find their distant destinations cannot be accounted for in terms of any of the known senses. Even if some species have a compass sense, enabling them to detect the earth's magnetic field, this cannot explain their ability to navigate.

Animals also exhibit what we might call premonitions. Some may be explicable in terms of physical stimuli; for example, animals that become disturbed before earthquakes may be reacting to electrical changes in the atmosphere, or dogs that alert their epileptic owners to an impending fit may notice muscular tremors or unusual odours.

All three types of perceptiveness - telepathy, the sense of direction and premonitions - seem better developed in non-human species, such as dogs, than in people. Although very little research has been done, such premonitions seem to occur in the human realm too.

Maybe we have lost some of these abilities because we no longer need them: telephones and television have superseded telepathy; maps and global positioning systems have replaced sense of direction. And perceptiveness is not cultivated in our educational system. Yet human "sixth senses" have not gone away. They look more natural, more biological when they are seen in the light of animal behaviour. Much that appears "paranormal" looks normal when we expand our ideas of normality. But we need to expand our view of physics and biology if these phenomena are to be explained at a more fundamental level.

Rupert Sheldrake was a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and is now a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, California. His book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals is published by Hutchinson, Pounds 16.99.

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