Listening to Fido

A Different Kind of A.I.

Animals know things we don't. New York City's 1.5 million dogs and 4 million cats live in two worlds: the ecosystem of instinct, and the web of interaction with humans. Increasingly, eager pet owners are exploring the possibility that our pets' thoughts can be as accessible as our own—and that their knowledge can form a bridge that transforms our lives.

"I was rooming with someone who had four dogs, and one day I just looked over at one of them and I thought, what makes me think he doesn't understand every word I say?" says Julie Rich, a/k/a "Aunt Julie," an animal communicator based in Clearwater, Florida, who offers free consultations to rescue animals and others directly affected by 9-11. Armed with a photograph, she conducts telepathic consultations by e-mail or phone, reporting Tigger or Ralpho's thoughts, hopes, anxieties, and breakfast preference. "I had a cat once tell me out of the blue, 'I really think my mommy's cute.' And I had to say, 'Your cat really wants me to know that she thinks you're cute.' And the woman paused and said, 'Now I know you know what you're doing,' " Aunt Julie laughs.

More and more otherwise rational people are coming to believe their pets have things to tell them. Sonya Fitzpatrick, host of the Animal Planet cable network's The Pet Psychic, holds conversations with creatures from alligators to performing bears, in a cuddly counterpart to John Edward's hit Crossing Over. Fitzpatrick has helped bring pet psychics to mainstream consciousness; a Web search of "pet psychic or animal communicator" turns up almost 8,000 sites, half a dozen in the New York area.

illustration: Paige Imatani

The communicators ground their "practice" in various New Age disciplines from telepathy to cosmic energy flow, but all emphasize its accessibility. "It's natural. It's not outside our normal experience," says Rae Ramsey, based on the Upper East Side and also a life coach for humans. "One of the things I love to do is to teach people how to do it themselves." She recommends quieting the mind and remaining open to thoughts such as "I think I'll wear the blue socks"—they may be telepathic communications from your pet.

Like most communicators, Ramsey and Rich have been talking with animals since childhood, and Ramsey prefers it to human psychic counseling. Rich says it's just different. "People tell me, 'You're so good with Fifi, why didn't you know who the sniper was?' " Rich says. "I don't want to get involved with people's stuff. People are already blessed with vocal cords—let them sort it out." Yet working with pets inevitably addresses the needs of the humans who pay for the consultations.

The psychological appeal of pet psychics is easy to see. They supply the answers our pet can't give us: Why won't Natasha sleep in the garage? Why is Sparky afraid of old men? (He once spotted an aging Nazi in Central Park, according to one of Rich's past investigations.) Why people would take these explanations seriously is a little harder to understand. Ramsey actually gets referrals from a few veterinarians, who rely on her to relay the patients' own preferences about their care—not coincidentally assuaging the guilt of many an anxious owner. Dead animals have even assumed the role of guru to their owners through the communicator.

Animal communication, at $50 to $100 a session, seems designed to appeal primarily to those New York pet owners who feed their animals organic raw diets and send them to the Hamptons on the Petney. But the hidden advantages of the animal-human relationship extend to people in all kinds of settings. Veterinarian Marty Becker, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul, recently published a book on the subject, titled The Healing Power of Pets. Dr. Becker describes dogs and cats who can predict their owners' heart attacks, seizures, and sudden drops in blood sugar, and even detect tiny melanomas, feats as impressive as any telepathic communication. Trained service dogs help the deaf, paralyzed individuals, and those with Parkinson's disease; calm agoraphobics and allow them to lead normal lives; comfort the terminally ill; and brighten the lives of Alzheimer's patients.

Pets, it turns out, improve health even for those without serious illnesses, raising activity levels and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. One study found that heart attack sufferers with pets had a four times better chance of surviving the first year. Without invoking the paranormal, Becker emphasizes the psychological importance of what he calls the Bond between humans and animals, which increases social interactions for the elderly and provides unconditional emotional support to children caught up in family turmoil, or anyone else who needs it.

Here in New York, the Delta Society's volunteers harness this pet power. The international organization has 75 to 100 pet partner teams working out of 20 therapy sites in the New York area, sending trained pet-human volunteer teams to nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. The typical working dog of the future is not a shepherd or Saint Bernard but Doug, a Tibetan terrier. Doug is a Delta Society Pet Partner; he and his person, Sherry Therlby, make bimonthly visits to the School of the Future, an innovative high school near Gramercy Park where many special-needs kids are mainstreamed. Doug and Sherry work with up to nine different students during each two-hour visit.

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