Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has spent upwards of 15 years researching psychic phenomena in animals—things like the impossible synergy of bird flocks wheeling together in unison or the uncanny knack some dogs and cats seem to have for knowing when their owners are coming home. “Unexplained abilities like telepathy,” he says, “are widespread in the animal kingdom.” Indeed, one of his most intriguing studies involves a famous Manhattan parrot named N’kisi who not only shares a telepathic bond with his owner Aimée Morgana but, by virtue of his advanced language ability, also has the tools to prove it. Schooled from a young age as though he were a human child, N’kisi knows roughly a thousand words; he conjugates his own verbs, cracks jokes, initiates conversation, and invents novel word combinations with delight. He also has the unnerving ability to read your thoughts and repeat them back to you out loud.
In a series of double-blind tests, Sheldrake placed Morgana and N’kisi in different rooms on different floors of a building and simultaneously videotaped them as Morgana flipped through a series of pictures she’d never seen before and N’kisi chattered away happily on his perch. Three times more often than chance would allow, N’kisi was talking about the image Morgana happened to be browsing at that very same instant. “Can I give you a hug?” he chirped as she viewed a photograph of a couple embracing. “What’cha doin’ on the phone?” he said when she saw one of a man talking on his cell phone. Sometimes, N’kisi even eavesdrops on Morgana’s dreams: “I was dreaming that I was working with the audio tape deck,” she remembers. “N’kisi, sleeping by my head, said out loud, ‘You gotta push the button,’ as I was doing exactly that in my dream. His speech woke me up.”
I was surprised to find that interspecies telepathy was not only more common historically than one might think but that it seems to be turning into the foundation for a whole new occupation: Professional animal communicator. Considered by many to be the field’s chief pioneer, Penelope Smith has made psychic contact with everything from horses to horseflies over the past 30 years—not to mention training several hundred others in the subtle spiritual arts of animal mind-reading and even animal therapy. This small brigade of clairvoyant counselors means business. They’re there to listen to your pet’s point of view and help you sort through whatever issues may have come between you, even over the phone. If you’re lucky, they might even help you wake up to what animals have to offer you.
“Animals have tremendous understanding of our problems,” Smith says. “They’re always trying to help de-stress us, to help us play and meditate and all the rest, you know?” As bizarre as that might sound, she’s not the only one who thinks so. Epona Farm in Sonoita, Arizona, is now hosting human development seminars facilitated by telepathic horses; the dolphins of Dolphin Heart World offer workshops in life skills, community-building, and alternative healing modalities via their nonlocal “Dolphin Consciousness.”
Revolutionary dolphin researcher John C. Lilly talked about the wonders of dolphin consciousness, too, but he may not have been sober at the time, and he certainly wasn’t capitalizing the term and using it to sell life skills workshops. Inventor of the isolation tank and psychedelic compatriot of Timothy Leary, Lilly took enormous doses of LSD and ketamine while he was with dolphins and came back raving about vast, incandescent matrices of information surging through their powerful group mind. Your guess is as good as mine on that one, but it’s interesting to note that the gifted American psychic Edgar Cayce might have agreed with him—Cayce also believed that the deepest dimensions of the animal self exist not at the level of the individual but of the entire species. “Cayce would say that there is a group soul, for example, for all cats,” explains scholar Kevin Todeschi. “And this overseeing energy, which is part of the divine, is really responsible for the cat world. Rather than each cat having its own individual soul like a human being, each attracts a piece of that group soul as its individual personality. And it’s possible to attract that same personality more than once, so you could have a cat die and another cat come along, and you might say, ‘My cat came back to me.’”
Speaking of animals “coming back,” the literature of supernatural experience is positively teeming with the ghosts of pets haunting places and people they knew while they were alive. Once, for example, a veterinarian treating a sick white horse gave its owners some baffling instructions: he told them that for safety’s sake, it would be best to separate the ailing animal from the other white horse in its corral. “What other horse?” they asked—and were dumbfounded as the vet went on to describe, in unmistakable detail, a second horse of theirs who had recently died. On another occasion, two young boys were close to drowning in a cold lake near the Austrian border when their father leapt into the water to rescue them. Swimming as fast as he could, he saw that the family dog Fritz had beaten him to the punch and watched as the faithful pet steered his boys back to the beach. The wrinkle: Fritz had been dead for over a year. When they all got to shore, his ghost disappeared, but not before a dozen onlookers had seen him too.
When chimps get religion
Ultimately, the precise parameters of human uniqueness may be too elusive to pin down, the character of the animal soul too loosely understood to be tied off with any authority. Even so, there’s one last question on my mind: What lies in store for the future? Just last September in the rainforests of the Congo, new types of tool use were observed among wild gorillas. Then in November, researchers in St. Louis made the startling announcement that higher mammals like whales and humans aren’t the only ones smart enough to be able to sing—now mice have been overheard performing complex (and catchy) ultrasonic love ballads to woo potential mates. And new findings like these seem to be cropping up by the month. Of course, science itself is always progressing, but could these discoveries also suggest that animal consciousness is evolving? If so, are their souls evolving too?
However one understands the soul’s nature and function in human beings, is it possible that animals—audacious as it may seem to ask—could even have their own spiritual inklings? One of Goodall’s most famous stories is of a great forest waterfall in the Kakombe valley where she occasionally observed the chimpanzees performing strange, spontaneous dances. Their behavior was inexplicable, she writes, but for the sense that they were responding to “feelings akin to awe . . . a feeling generated by the mystery of water; water that seems alive, always rushing past yet never going, always the same yet ever different.” J. Allen Boone reflects on a similar incident in Kinship with All Life, marveling at a German shepherd watching the sunset from a mountaintop ledge: “His gaze was focused on a point in the sky considerably above the horizon line. He was staring off into fathomless space. Out there beyond the ability of my human senses to identify what it was, something was holding the big dog’s attention like a magnet! And it was giving him great satisfaction, great contentment, great peace of mind. That fact was not only written all over him; it was permeating the atmosphere like a perfume. I had watched human pilgrims in such meditative poses on sacred mountains in the Orient. I wondered … and wondered … and wondered …”
What does this mean? Goodall speculates that it was “similar feelings of awe that gave rise to the first animistic religions, the worship of the elements and the mysteries of nature over which there was no control.” Bill Wallauer, a videographer who has spent nine years with the chimps in Tanzania, adds, “We can’t come to any real conclusions, but I honestly do believe that chimps have the capacity to contemplate and consider (even revere) both the animate and inanimate.” Unlikely though it seems, it’s fascinating to consider the notion of some sort of proto-religious impulse in animalkind. Yet evolutionary philosophers such as Teilhard de Chardin and Henri Bergson would likely have seen such a development as no longer possible. Now that the wild upward thrust of consciousness in the universe has finally burst the bonds of matter through the awakening human mind, they believed, it has no more need to push its way forward through other species.
“Everywhere but in man,” writes Bergson, “consciousness has had to come to a stand; in man alone it has kept on its way.” Nevertheless, the future is an open book. What unseen potentials of soul and consciousness might one day rise to the surface of the animal mind? Reflecting on my own few moments of fleeting communion with the spirit and intelligence of wild creatures, I can’t say for sure. But I’ve heard that in the high, cold mountains above Dharamsala, India, Tibetan monks in exile recite the dharma to their dogs in hopes that someday they, too, will be able to practice it themselves.
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