(Investigator 112, 2007 January)

It has long been claimed that animals possess strange and unexplained precognitive powers. Experts in the fields of geology, biology and seismology have produced a formidable body of evidence to show that many animals, birds and insects can be seen to react to impending disaster by their behaviour. Dogs in particular seem to be endowed with this sense of premonition.

Prior to the earthquake in Tashkent (1962), it was noticed that many animals became restless, and dogs howled for several weeks before the catastrophe. On May 6, 1976, an earthquake in the Udine region of Italy was heralded by the barking of dogs, and the devastating shocks which killed more than 15,000 people in Agadir, Morocco in 1960, were preceded by the mass desertion of animals from the stricken area.

Some parapsychologists and experts who have studied animal behaviour maintain that not only are animals capable of precognition but extra sensory perception as well. A well documented case is that of a stallion who became known as Clever Hans.

Owned by a horse-fancier Wilhelm von Osten, of Elberfelt, Germany, Hans was trained to think out problems and to give his answers by tapping with his hooves on a stool or on the floor. He learned numbers, and the sequential numbers of the letters of the alphabet and could do addition, all without the slightest hesitation.

After considerable patience and training Clever Hans could solve elementary mathematical equations and even read a musical score.

Before he died in 1904, von Osten taught a friend Karl Krall all he knew about training horses and entrusted him with all his records. Clever Hans' new owner trained two other horses named Muhamed and Zarif, who proved to be even more proficient than Hans, mastering division and subtraction within two weeks.

The eminent Swiss psychologist Clarparede compiled a detailed account of the Elbertfelt horses' mathematical expertise, describing how Muhamed multiplied square roots and came up with the right answers in record time. Claparede was thorough in his observations, and although he explored every possible explanation, his report failed to come up with anything plausible. He had no doubt of Krall's honesty however, and ruled out fraud completely.

There is little doubt that some animals, birds, reptiles, fish and insects, possess diverse and highly developed senses not common to man, enabling them to do seemingly remarkable things. Further, many of them, ranging from seals to whales and parrots to elephants, can be taught to perform and to do circus tricks. But when it comes to paranormal powers to them such as ESP and recognition, a close examination of such claims will reveal a more mundane explanation.

High on the list of erroneous beliefs in the psychic powers of animals is the dolphin, whose intelligence is equated by some as being on a par with or superior to that of man. There seems to be a reluctance to accept that dolphins are naturally playful mammals and can be taught do tricks in exactly the same way as other marine animals.

The common belief that animals can forecast earthquakes for instance is at best a half-truth. American seismologists were consulted in 1974 on the subject, and the consensus was that earthquakes are often preceded by small foreshocks which sensitive animals may feel but humans do not. The warning time they are able to give however, is only a matter of moments.

The case of Clever Hans, the horse who could allegedly spell and do arithmetic by tapping his hooves on the ground, has been elevated to the status of a phenomenon and is often quoted as a prime example of psychic ability in an animal. The horse appeared to respond to questions in such a manner that it appeared to have understood them, and possessed the necessary knowledge to answer them. The fallacy however, is that the animal is accepted as the originator of the message rather than a channel through which the questioner's own message is reflected back.

Although Hans' owner Herr von Osten was adamant that he had not trained the horse to respond to cues, one investigator, Oskar Pfungst, was not convinced and carried out a series of experiments.

In one, he demonstrated that if the person who asked the question didn't know the answer, Clever Hans was unable to reply correctly. In another, if the horse could not see the questioner he did not reply.

Pfungst also discovered several subtle clues which started and stopped Hans' hooves tapping. If the questioner looked down at Hans' hooves the tapping would start. When the questioner's head was raised the tapping would stop. It was a natural thing for any questioner to do, to look at the horse's hooves immediately after asking a question, then when the right number of taps had been heard, to lift one's head. If the stop cue was not given, Hans would keep on tapping.

Clever Hans was certainly not the first nor the only "psychic" horse in history. In Sa Rid's The Art of Juggling or Legerdermaine (1612), the author refers to "one pretty knack, which is held to be marvelous and wonderful" namely, "to make a horse tell you how much money you have in your purse", and in Gervase Markham's Cavelarice (1607) the author explains in some detail how a horse can be trained to do arithmetic using reward and punishment training methods remarkably similar to those in use today.


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[From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age]