What do you believe?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines telepathy as communication from one mind to another by extrasensory means. The dictionary goes on to define “extrasensory” or “extrasensory perception” (ESP) as communication between minds involving no obvious contact (telepathy), gaining information about something without using the normal senses (clairvoyance), or predicting the future (precognition).
By now we are beginning to enter the word of crystal balls, Tarot cards and palmistry which I hope to avoid in this article. Nevertheless there is clear evidence of currently inexplicable animal behaviour and abilities.
The idea that animals can predict earthquakes has ancient origins. As far back as 373 BC the Greek historian Thucydides recorded descriptions of rats, dogs, snakes and weasels deserting the city of Helike in droves just days before an earthquake of catastrophic proportions hit. The accompanying tsunami drowned the sunken city completely leaving no apparent survivors. This is likely to be one of the first in a long line of such anecdotes.
In the case of the Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, some animals appeared to be aware that something was happening half an hour before disaster struck. According to villagers in Bang Koey, Thailand, a herd of buffalo were grazing by the beach when they suddenly lifted their heads and looked out to sea, ears standing upright. They turned and stampeded up the hill, followed by bewildered villagers, whose lives were thereby saved.
Were these fleeing animals telepathic? Probably not.
Earthquakes are almost always preceded by almost undetectable tremors which may have been picked up by these ground-living creatures sounding a warning signal of danger to the primitive parts of the brain. This would be accurately described as “extra-sensitive perception” rather than the “extrasensory perception” as described by Merriam-Webster.
Similar extra-sensitive capabilities probably account for the ability of household pets predict the onset of an epileptic fit — hours before it occurs or predict the onset of a high blood sugar crisis? Sufferers of epilepsy and a number of other mental health disorders are known to experience subtle prodromal changes in behaviour — changes to which a trained dog will respond to and bring aid to the patient. Vibrations are one thing but the use of the dog’s acute sense of smell is another which may account for the success of Diabetic Assistance Dogs (DADs) who can detect when its handler’s blood sugar levels dangerously exceed normal limits. A DAD dog will carry a light saddlebag containing insulin syringes, glucose syrup and a mobile phone to provide early intervention in the event of a crisis.
Similarly trained dogs will sniff out illegal drugs, explosives, USB drives and even currency on police raids and airport arrival facilities. Once trained, these canine detectives are very difficult to distract. In 2002, a detection dog foiled a woman’s attempt to smuggle marijuana into an Australian prison in Brisbane. The marijuana had been inserted into a balloon, which was smeared with coffee, pepper and petroleum jelly and then placed in her bra. She was still detected.
Now we begin to explore unknown territory. I have witnessed bomb disposal dogs at the Royal Army Veterinary Corps Remount Depot in Melton Mowbray detecting foreign objects buried more than six feet deep fifteen years previously. Other animals appear to be able to detect cancer in human patients several months before the disease can be diagnosed by the doctors. These animals rely on something which defies current scientific understanding. Are these well-documented events the result of telepathy, the use of senses that we have lost during evolution or simply acute observation by the animal in question?
Let me give an example of the last possibility. At a veterinary conference in Birmingham I was having a drink with the animal behaviourist, Dr Peter Neville, a teaching professor at the Ohio State University, who told me the tale of his ‘telepathic’ dog. He had been visiting a friend, and they were just finishing their supper in the front room when his friend mentioned that his dog was telepathic.
“Your dog is not telepathic,” replied Peter.
“Watch,” said his host. “I will move out of this chair and turn right out of the door to go to the kitchen. She will get up and precede me to the kitchen.”
“OK,” said Peter. “Show me.”
Sure enough, the dog got up from under the table and turned right to the kitchen. He returned to his chair.
“Now I will turn left to the front door,” said the owner and once again the dog got up in front of him and turned left.
Peter thought for a while then asked his friend to get up and go in random directions while he watched the dog.
Within five minutes, Peter said “I’ve got it!”
“What do you mean ‘you’ve got it’?”
“Don’t tell me where you are going. I will tell you.”
His friend rose from the chair and Peter told him, without hesitation, he was going to the kitchen. He tried various other directions and each time Peter got it right.
“How the hell did you do that?”
“I watched your dog lying under the table. She was looking at your feet, so I did the same. It is an uneven number of steps from your chair to the doorway where you make the turn so, to turn left, you start off on your right foot and vice versa. Now I want you to step off with your right foot and turn right to the kitchen.”
The owner of the dog almost fell over his feet in the attempt.
Not everything is as inexplicable as it would appear — conversely, it often seems that the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know.
As examples of the use of latent senses, we only have to watch the actions of animals, usually dogs, which have been trained to detect illegal drugs at airports; predict epileptic seizures and anticipate severe allergic attacks. These animals are not telepathic but have been patiently trained to use senses that we have lost.
Let us return to the concept of animal telepathy. The buffalo in Thailand may have detected an unfamiliar and possibly frightening change in air pressure of which the human population was unaware but there are several examples of animal behaviours that are currently inexplicable. Many of these involve the behaviour of family pets such as those who will predict the imminent arrival of their owner by sitting at the front door even if that person has only just got into the taxi five miles away. Other animals will lie on their owners’ beds while they are away but return to their own beds the day before their return — even if their international flight is delayed for a day or the car breaks down and they have to spend the night in a B&B — they still get the day riight.
Finally there are the countless witnesses of pet animals leaving the sick bed or room of a dying person up to an hour before their death eventually occurred — or doing just the opposite and lying against the terminal patient in their last hours.
Most research scientists would agree that the more we discover, the more we realise how little we know. As Hamlet said to Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.