Strange but true pet tales
Essay | Observations on the puzzling behavior of animals
by John R. Erickson
Posted 2/17/18, 12:07 pm
Rupert Sheldrake is a British scientist who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge University and the author of an intriguing book called Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (Crown Publishers 1999).
He makes the argument that some animals have powers of knowing and communicating with humans that cannot be explained through conventional physics. Some animals, particularly dogs and cats, seem capable of reading the thoughts of their owners in a manner that suggests a kind of telepathy. Sheldrake’s research indicates that it’s more common than we might suppose.
Although this has been a theme in folklore (St. Francis of Assisi and Cuthbert claimed to communicate with animals), Sheldrake admits that it’s difficult to test under the usual procedures of experimental science. Rational science has been astonishingly successful at performing certain tasks, but is not adept at seeing beyond the borders of its own definitions of accepted knowledge.
Sheldrake points out that science begins with a worldview and a set of principles that practitioners consider beyond question (the speed of light, the force of gravity, that the universe is an inanimate machine), and that scientific research is blind to what it doesn’t already know and believe. It tends to find what it’s looking for and to dismiss what it can’t see as gossip and nonsense.
Ordinary people don’t always operate under the constraints of science. When they observe unusual behavior in their animals, they form their own conclusions and don’t discuss them with scientists, unless a scientist happens to ask. Sheldrake did ask, hundreds of animal keepers, trainers, and pet owners on four continents, and created a database of anecdotal evidence. These people reported animals that:
- Knew when their owner was coming home, or even thinking of coming home.
- Knew when their owner was sick.
- Knew that someone close to them had died or was in danger.
- Sensed the approach of seizures and sudden death in their people.
- Sensed the approach of earthquakes and natural disasters.
- Could find their way home, even over long distances and through unfamiliar country.
How do we explain such behavior? Sheldrake doesn’t claim to have complete answers but speculates that animals are sensitive to “morphic fields” that operate outside our understanding of time and space. It might be a type of sensing that humans possessed at one time but have lost as we have developed the skills of rational scientific inquiry. He points out that the aboriginal people of Australia have always claimed to have “knowledge at a distance.” Without instruments, they know where they are, where they are going, where to find water, and where other members of their group are located, even when they are 50 or 100 miles away.
Sheldrake’s research interests me because, as a rancher, I have spent most of my adult life in close contact with livestock, domestic animals, and wildlife. His book prompted me to look back on my experience with animals, with a special focus on things that didn’t quite add up.
Lee the Cat
In the late 1990s, our family had an assortment of porch animals, two or three dogs and several cats. We had always been “dog people” and had not been as close to our cats, but Mark, our son, developed a friendship with Lee, a black and white tom, and Lee won the rare privilege of spending time inside the house.
One day my wife Kris developed a severe headache, which was unusual for her. She laid down on the couch and was surprised when Lee jumped up and sat on her chest, where he purred, stared at her, and moved his front paws up and down. Then he crept forward and began pressing his paws against her head, almost as though he were giving her a massage. After a while, the headache went away.
Kris was convinced the cat understood that she had a headache, wanted to help, and actually succeeded. Several years later when I read the Sheldrake book, I saw that he had a whole chapter on this sort of behavior: “Animals That Comfort and Heal.”
Most of us assume that death is an abstract concept, accessible only to humans, yet Sheldrake recorded a number of cases in which dogs and cats showed awareness of the death of a human companion. Some showed signs of grieving. Our dog Sophie displayed a kind of behavior that Sheldrake did not mention: awareness of the death of a companion animal.
The first example occurred in the late 1990s when Kris was homeschooling our children at the ranch. We had three dogs at that time: Penny, a half border collie; Bones, a thin white dog that might have been part greyhound; and Sophie, a blue heeler–Australian shepherd mix.
Sophie was everything a family dog should be: kind, loyal, funny, gentle, and patient with children. She was also an astute observer of people. She studied our faces and could read our moods, feelings, and intentions. No dog in my experience was such a careful observer of human faces.
One morning, the dogs were out on patrol about a mile from our house. Penny darted in front of the pickup of an oil field worker and got run over. The driver heard her cries and stopped, but Penny ran away and he couldn’t find her. He drove to our house and told us what had happened.
Mark, our daughter Ashley, and I drove to the spot. Sophie and Bones were still there, but we saw no sign of Penny and heard no cries of pain. We spread out in a line and walked back and forth across the area where we thought she would be, but we didn’t find her.
We had given up the search and were on our way back to the pickup when I noticed an odd pile of grass, leaves, and twigs. It was out of context. It shouldn’t have been there. I brushed away the top layer of grass and saw black and white fur. It was Penny, dead and covered up.
Mountain lions will cover a deer in this manner, but Penny wasn’t a deer and we had only rare visits from mountain lions, certainly none in the past hour. I couldn’t imagine how to explain this. I had never heard of a dog burying another dog. It suggested an awareness of death that I found implausible and maybe even silly—an attempt to attribute human emotions to nonhuman creatures.
But Penny was dead and something had covered her with grass and leaves, and she hadn’t buried herself.
I noticed Sophie. She went to the body and sniffed it, and began clicking her teeth together. I had never seen her do that before, and it made me wonder. My rational faculties said “no,” but my instincts said “yes.” Sophie had buried her friend. I couldn’t prove it, but there was no other explanation. As Sherlock Holmes said, when you’ve eliminated the impossible, what remains is the truth.
Months later, I returned to the house around 10 and noticed Bones lying on the porch. She didn’t rush to greet me, as she always did, and seemed listless or sick. I looked her over and noticed bloody serum oozing from two puncture wounds on her thigh. A rattlesnake had bitten her. This was common occurrence on our ranch and most of our dogs had been bitten, but usually on the face where the fangs didn’t make a deep penetration into the flesh.
Bones had taken a deep bite and needed attention. I drove her 40 miles into town to the veterinarian. He said there was nothing he could do about the poison (too much time had elapsed), but gave her a shot to prevent infection. He thought she would get over it. “Let her lie around in the shade and give her plenty of water.”
Back at the ranch, I carried her to a hedge in the front yard where she would have plenty of shade, and left her with a bowl of water. Later, I returned and looked for her in the hedge. She wasn’t there, so I walked all around the house, calling her name. Sophie came but not Bones.
I noticed a paper feed sack in the yard. It was lying on top of what appeared to be a mound of dry grass. I lifted the sack and saw a patch of white hair beneath the grass. It was Bones. She had died and something had covered her body.
Sophie went to the body, sniffed it, and began clicking her teeth together. At that point, I was sure that she had buried Bones, just as she had buried Penny.
There is another story about Sophie. In the late 1990s, a friend in town gave Mark an orphan raccoon. We called her Lulu and raised her on a bottle and her favorite food, green grapes. She grew up on the porch with the dogs and cats, and I think she must have thought she was one of them.
Texie, a border collie, regarded the coon with suspicion and stayed away from her, but Sophie and Lulu became friends. Sophie went to the trouble of teaching Lulu dog manners and disciplined her about biting too hard—taught her the difference between playing and fighting. We have photographs of the two of them on the porch, eating, sleeping, playing, and watching the world go by.
Lulu was a wonderful pet and our whole family loved her, but she grew into an adult and left. We didn’t see her for months. Then one day I was out on the porch, talking on my cellphone, and happened to look at a big cottonwood tree along the creek east of our house. And there was Lulu, watching me from a hole in the tree trunk. I don’t recall who was on the other end of the conversation, but I was so delighted I yelled, “Holy cow, it’s Lulu, our pet coon!”
That evening, I went out on the porch and made my familiar call: “LOOOOO-loo! LOOOOO-loo!” She didn’t come at once, but later we heard her whimpering at the door. It meant that she wanted some grapes. She looked thin, and the nipples on her belly told us that she had some babies hidden in that cottonwood tree.
Over the next several months, she came to the house every evening for grapes, but we didn’t see the little ones until December, when she brought them to the house one night after dark. They were almost grown by then and shy toward us, but at least we got to see our grandcoons.
We have pictures of Lulu that night, sitting on Mark’s shoulder in our kitchen, a big healthy full-grown raccoon wearing a beautiful winter coat. That was the last time we saw her. She and her kids went back to the wild.
Three or four years later, on a crisp fall evening, I decided to sleep out on the porch and listen to the wind of the first norther of the season. It was something I often did, and was able to stay warm in my goose-down sleeping bag. As usual, Sophie bedded down beside me.
In the middle of the night, I awoke and noticed a powerful odor—bad. I sat up and turned on a flashlight. Near the spot where my head had been, there was some kind of dead animal. Sophie was there, watching me. Apparently she had dragged it up and deposited it right next to my head. I muttered, “Thanks a lot, pooch, that’s just what I needed,” and went into the house, leaving the stinking porch to the dogs.
The next morning, I went out to dispose of the carcass. In the light of day, I saw the hard, dried skin of a raccoon. It took me a while to put it together. Our old friend Lulu had died. Sophie had found her, brought her home, and placed her beside my head.
Is this romantic nonsense? Over the years, I have seldom told these stories, because they are so strange and inexplicable. One hates to report things one can’t explain, but Sheldrake’s research reminds us that what we understand—or think we understand—might be only a small part of God’s creation.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.