Listen to the animals

Can pets and wildlife warn us of the next tsunami or earthquake?

Marco Visscher | July/Aug 2005 issue

Elephants in Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Indonesian island of Sumatra moved to higher ground before the tsunami struck last December. According to a villager in Bang Koey, Thailand, a herd of buffalo was grazing by the beach when the animals “suddenly lifted their heads and looked out to sea, ears standing upright.” The buffalo then turned and stampeded up the hill, followed by bewildered villagers, whose lives were saved. At Ao Sane beach, near Phuket, Thailand, dogs ran up to the hill tops, and at Galle in Sri Lanka dog owners were puzzled by the fact that their animals refused to go for their usual morning walk on the beach. In Cuddalore District in Tamil Nadu, India, buffaloes, goats and dogs fled the beachfront, as did a nesting colony of flamingos that flew to higher ground. In the Andaman Islands off India “stone age” tribal groups moved away from the coast before the disaster, having been alerted by the behaviour of animals.

How did the animals know what was coming? The usual speculation is that they picked up tremors caused by the under-sea earthquake. This explanation seems unconvincing to me. There would have been tremors all over Southeast Asia, not just in the afflicted coastal areas. And if animals can predict earthquake-related disasters by sensing slight tremors, why can’t sophisticated seismological machinery?

Animals also seem to know when other kinds of calamities are about to strike. In my recent book The Sense of Being Stared At I summarize a large body of evidence concerning unusual animal behaviour before earthquakes, including those in Kobe, Japan, in 1995 and Assisi, Italy, in 1997 as well as several recent quakes in California. In all cases there were many reports of wild and domesticated animals behaving in fearful, anxious or unusual ways hours or even days before the earthquakes struck. The same is true of a 1999 earthquake in Turkey: dogs were howling for hours in advance, and many cats and birds were behaving unusually.

No one knows how some animals sense earthquakes coming. Perhaps they pick up subtle sounds or vibrations in the earth; maybe they respond to subterranean gases released prior to the tremors, or react to changes in the earth’s electrical field. They may also sense in advance what is about to happen in a way that lies beyond current scientific understanding, through some sort of information force field.

Animals can also anticipate man-made catastrophes such as air raids. During WWII, many families in Britain and Germany relied on their pets to warn them of impending air raids, well in advance of official notification. These warnings occurred when enemy planes were still hundreds of miles away, long before the animals could have heard them coming. Some dogs in London even anticipated the explosion of German V-2 rockets. These missiles were supersonic and hence could not have been heard in advance.

Unusual animal behaviour also occurs before avalanches. On February 23, 1999 an avalanche devastated the Austrian village of Galtür in the Tyrol, killing dozens of people. The previous day, the chamois (small goat-like antelopes) came down from the mountains into the valleys: something they rarely do. Through surveys in alpine villages in Austria and Switzerland, I found that the animals most likely to anticipate avalanches are chamois and ibexes as well as dogs. Although such behaviour is still unexplained, this ability would obviously be of survival value in mountain animals, and would be favoured by evolutionary natural selection.

With very few exceptions, the ability of animals to anticipate disasters has been ignored by Western scientists, who dismiss stories of animal anticipations as anecdotal or superstitious. The Chinese, in contrast, have encouraged people in earthquake-prone areas to report unusual animal behaviour since the 1970s; and Chinese scientists have an impressive track record in predicting earthquakes. In several cases they issued warnings that enabled cities to be evacuated hours before devastating earthquakes struck, saving tens of thousands of lives.

By following the lead of the Chinese in paying attention to unusual animal behaviour, earthquake warning systems might be feasible in California, Greece, Turkey, Japan and elsewhere. Millions of pet owners and farmers in earthquake-prone areas could be asked to take part in this project. They could be alerted to signs of anxiety, fear or other behaviour their pets and other animals might show if an earthquake were imminent. If people noticed these signs, or any other unusual behaviour, they could immediately call a telephone hotline or send a message via the internet. A computer system could analyze where these calls were originating If there were a sudden surge of calls from a particular region, it could indicate that an earthquake was imminent. The same principles would apply to tsunamis. (False alarms from people whose pets were simply sick, and hoax calls would probably need to be factored into the plans.)

To explore the potential for animal-based warning systems would cost a small fraction of current earthquake and tsunami research. By doing this research we would be sure to learn something, and could probably save many lives. At present, great amounts of money are being allocated for setting up tsunami warning systems. I hope that those responsible for spending this money will not ignore what animals can tell us.

Excerpted from The Ecologist (March 2005), a brash and intelligent green magazine from the U.K. Subscription information: www.theecologist.org.

Rupert Sheldrake is a U.K. biologist and leading thinker exploring the existence of undiscovered fields of communication in the world. He is the author of Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At. Check his website: www.sheldrake.org.

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