There is increasing evidence that beasts and birds possess the ability to read our minds. Gavin Bell investigates the strange phenomena which could have benefits for humans.
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HEARD the one about the seagull that saved an old lady's life? It happened a few years ago in Cape Cod, when the lady in question fell over a 30ft cliff on
to a lonely beach. As she lay badly hurt and trapped between large boulders, a
seagull hovered above her and then flew off. A few minutes later, her sister at their home a mile away was distracted by a gull tapping repeatedly on a window with its beak and frantically flapping its
wings. Eventually she went outside, and the bird promptly led her to the scene
of the accident. The sisters believed the gull was one that they had fed regularly in their garden, and they were convinced that it had somehow sensed when one of its benefactors was in distress. How about the bottle-nosed dolphin that streaked to the rescue of a diver in trouble off Cornwall? Or the golden retriever at the British Embassy in Beijing
who woke the staff with its incessant barking? They fled the building shortly be-fore it was shaken by tremors from a major earthquake 100 miles away. Tales of animals displaying psychic powers, or some kind of ``sixth sense'', have been around for centuries. Scientists may have scoffed, but people who have experienced such phenomena believe in it. The citizens of Freiburg in Germany raised a monument to a duck that saved thousands of lives during the Second World War by warning of an impending air raid. Anybody who has owned a dog or a cat may have noticed how they inexplicably disappear when a visit to the vet is due. Or how they make themselves scarce when it's time to board them out for
the holidays. For the first time, there is now scientific evidence that Fido and Tigger and their chums know a good deal more about what is going on than they are given credit for. According to research by Rupert Sheldrake, an eminent biologist, many have extra-sensory powers that let them know precisely when their owners are preparing to leave work to come home. In effect, he says, they are reading
their owners' minds. Evidence was collated in a survey of hundreds of households with pets in the Man-chester area, using video cameras to record the animals' behaviour as their
owners began heading home. Sheldrake, a former director of cell biology and biochemistry at Cambridge University, concluded dogs are more sensitive, or at
least more demonstrative, than cats in this respect. However, it appears felines are more attuned to telephone calls from people they like. There have been documented cases of cats rushing to a phone and pawing at the receiver when people they are particularly attached to are ringing. Other calls they ignore. The implications of this are enormous, according to Sheldrake. Even if we don't
understand how they work, the telepathic powers of animals could be of tremendous benefit to humanity if properly harnessed. He points to a case in Leeds in which a dog was found to become agitated before its epileptic owner suffered a seizure. It has now been trained to bark a warning of impending fits.
Sheldrake wants to boldy go much further - to a pet-based earthquake early warning system, no less. He is presently collating reports of abnormal behaviour of animals hours before the big Californian quake of 1989. Given enough data, he believes he can present an argument for setting up a tremor hot-line that people can alert when their pets
display the appropriate warning signs. There is no shortage of circumstantial evidence that dogs, in particular, are sensitive to seismic activity. On a seemingly calm day on the French island of
Martinique in 1902, residents were bemused to see their pets streaming out of their homes in agitation and heading for the beaches. Shortly afterwards a volcanic eruption killed 30,000 people. The earthquake that devastated the Udine region of northern Italy on the night of May 6, 1976, was heralded by the concerted barking of dogs. Chinese observers have recorded Tibetan yaks sprawling on the ground in fear, and pandas holding their heads and screaming shortly before natural disasters. In the absence of cataclysmic earth tremors, about two million people in Britain have found an ingenious way of applying their pets' psychic powers - to
pick National Lottery numbers. Dogs are favourite, closely followed by cats, and at least one punter relies on his pet tarantula. Whether mutts and moggies are in the least interested in using their sixth sense in such a frivolous manner remains to be seen. In the meantime, I have some advice for people who like walking along exposed cliffs. Be nice to the seagulls.