In 1958 Donald Moore was driving his family from Nebraska to a new home in Louisiana, USA, when their cat, Hornblower, got left behind along the way. Three weeks later, over 700 kilometers from where he was lost, Hornblower appeared at the Moores’ new home, which he had never seen before. In 1959 a South African family moved house 1100 kilometers away, leaving their pet tortoise behind. The dawdling tortoise found its owners three years later, still wearing its old identity tag.
These animals were “psi-trailing” – travelling long distances to unknown places in search of their owners. The word was coined by American parapsychologist Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, who during the 1950s led research at North Carolina’s Duke University into animal extrasensory perception, called animal psi or anpsi. His team investigated 500 cases and identified five categories of anpsi – sensing forthcoming harm to an individual, foretelling natural disasters, anticipating the return of a loved one, finding a way home and psi trailing.
One of the most astonishing of psi-trailing concerns Private Brown, a soldier who left Britain in 1914 to fight in France. Soon afterwards his dog Prince disappeared. Brown’s wife later learned that Prince had been able to make his way to the London docks, cross the English Channel and find his master in the trenches at Armentieres.
Some animals seem to sense the deaths of distant loved ones. White House staff reported that Abraham Lincoln’s dog began to howl and rush about shortly before the US president was assassinated in 1865. And in 1923, four months after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, as the expedition’s sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, died in Cairo, his dog – 5,000 kilometers away in England – yelped once and died.
Animal warnings have been associated with imminent catastrophes, such as volcanic eruptions and fires. Inhabitants of the Skopje zoo in Macedonia began restlessly flinging themselves against their cages only hours before the 1963 earthquake. German psychiatrist Dr. Utes Pleimes of the University of Geissen has recorded more than 800 danger warnings from animals and says, “We are fools to ignore them.”
Animals may somehow sense the impending return of someone they known. The 1937 film Elephant Boy featured the Indian actor Sabu Dastagir, whose co-starring elephant was sent to Dudley Zoo in England after filming. Months later, Sabu visited his friend. Long before the man reached the enclosure, the elephant began trumpeting agitatedly until Sabu appeared. Among the extraordinary animals studied by Dr. Rhine’s team, few outshone Chris, George Wood’s part-beagle from Rhode Island. Wood claimed the dog could communicate future events by tapping messages with his paws. Chris learnt a paw-tapping system to identify the five symbols in a pack of 25 Zener cards, used for telepathy experiments – one tap to indicate a circle, two for a cross, and so on. Even when researchers handled the cards in a separate room, the dog’s ESP performance outstripped by far the odds of chance occurrences (about a thousand million to one).
Horses too exhibit anpsi. In the early 1900s in Berlin, the stallion Clever Hans appeared to count and spell by nodding his head, stamping a forefoot and muzzling alphabet blocks. Oskar Pfungst, a young psychologist, suspected that the horse was picking up cues from the body language of the owner or spectators. The Elberfeld horses in Germany, observed by Belgian Nobel prizewinning writer Maurice Maeterlinck around 1913, showed similar abilities – their trainer tied sacks over their heads to forestall accusations of prompting. Maeterlinck saw the four horses spell, do mathematical calculations by tapping answers with their hooves, and identify pictures and colors.
It may be that animals react more sensitively than humans to natural phenomena, such as barometric pressure or minute earth tremors. Claims of psi-trailing may sometimes be put down to mistaken identity. People’s facial expressions or gestures may offer cues, consciously or unconsciously, to supposedly psychic creatures. But ample anecdotal material encourages the efforts of researchers such as the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who announced plans in April 1994 for a serious investigation of supernaturally perceptive pets.