They don’t tie up the phone for hours, they can’t gossip at the water cooler, and never once has one of them made a nasty campaign speech or a racial slur on talk radio.
But animals speak loud and clear—when they have caring humans who can provide translations, please. And a diverse handful of folks right here in the Knoxville area say they can do just that, ready to interpret animal body language, vocalizations, and even telepathic messages so the rest of us can understand the Animal Kingdom.
Some animal communicators have lofty goals: showcasing the innate intelligence of exotic birds, for example, so the environmentally indifferent can understand our society can’t continue to lose endangered species. Others are more practical, but just as valuable: helping pet owners get more bonding, less barking, and fewer piles of poop, or showing city dwellers how to relax to the chirp, chirp, chirp of the chickadee.
But whether their background is professorial or backwoods, whether the goal is pampered pets or preservation of the planet, all five of these animal communicators have a special bond with the birds and beasts, and their own way of listening…and talking back.
SHELLY HOWLEY, Telepathic Animal Communicator
Owner of Healing Human Paws in Maryville
How she communicates: “I try to contact the animal wherever it is from my home. I ground myself, breathing in the life air, the life energy, and I picture my heart opening up like a door. I become totally relaxed and I call out the pet’s name. I always introduce myself and ask if it’s OK to talk. Animals talk to me in words, pictures, feelings, emotions, scents and sentences. Sometimes it’s a jumble and I have to ask the owner to clarify what the animal is talking about.”
Our little secret: “I don’t like snakes. One time a client asked me to talk to one, and I just couldn’t do it.”
Shelly Howley sometimes goes to a party in Maryville with her husband, an engineer, and talk will turn to work. “I’ll tell someone, ‘I’m an animal communicator,’ and they’re like, ‘No, really,’ so I’m like, ‘OK, I’m an accountant.’”
In reality, starting two years ago, Howley has spent more and more of her time telepathically communicating with animals. “That’s when I finally figured out, ‘I’m an adult now, I don’t have to worry if people look at me funny.’”
Howley conducts individual communications and teaches workshops to help others use psychic communication to correct behavior problems, locate animals, and diagnose health issues.
“When I was little, I was very connected to animals, and my parents dragged me off to the child psychologist,” says Howley. “One of the messages I give in my workshops is that it’s okay to communicate with animals. A lot of time people’s telepathy is suppressed, maybe for religious reasons. But everybody has psychic ability if you want to use it…”
If people prefer to tap Howley’s ability instead, they’re most likely to ask her to find out why the cat’s not using the litter box, she says. “That’s the most common problem. The second question I ask the most is, ‘Are you happy?’”
Howley has also had success with locating lost animals, using a psychic technique known as “dowsing,” where she swings a pendulum over a map. “I see areas where the animal has been or is now,” she says, “Sometimes I find an animal is not returning home due to something the owner does that the animal does not like, for example, smoke.”
Pets do confide some personal things about their owners, says Howley, but she doesn’t relate them unless it will help the relationship between the two. “I have had pets say their owners dress them in ‘other’ clothing or that they sing in the shower and in the car and it’s horrible,” she says. “They tell me about owners dressing them up, and they hate that. Baby talk is another one…they hate that, too.”
This pet psychic is the first to say telepathic sessions are not always 100 percent right. “Sometimes communicators funnel some of their own energy into the conversation. Like me, if I was talking for myself, I would always tell people to listen to Eddie Money. I love Eddie Money.”
Howley talks to her own pets, too, including five cats, two dogs, and two sock-stealing ferrets. She says her constant companion Sadie, an 8-year-old Jack Russell/rat terrier mix, is “not real friendly, but very loyal.”
In her workshops, Howley encourages people to try to talk to a whale or dolphin, to get in tune with the wild, wild world of animals. “When I talk to one of them, they’ll say, ‘You know, these oceans do not belong to you.’
“Animals will tell you how to treat them better, but they also let you know how to live, how to be your best self.”
ELLEN MAHURIN, Animal Behaviorist
Owner of Clever Critters in Knoxville; B.S. biology, B.A. psychology, M.A. animal behavior/psychology, UT; American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, Animal Works Board of Directors
How she communicates: “As animal behaviorists, Clever Critters trainers understand animal psychology: how animals think, remember, learn and interact with the world. For each client, I’ll go where I can get the maximum amount of information about the pet and can identify all the reinforcements and punishments a pet receives when the problem behavior occurs. Most often that’s the home. Then I try to help the owner interpret what the pet is thinking about a particular situation. We work to establish a give-and-take relationship that uses positive reinforcement—adding something pleasant to the dog’s environment like a treat—and encourages the owner and dog to practice responding to each others’ signals.”
Our little secret: Comet, Mahurin’s mixed breed dog, is not a model of calm behavior. “He’ll always need management. From 4-12 weeks, Comet was in a yard by himself, only interacting with humans when he was fed. When I adopted him at 12 weeks, I immediately began basic obedience communication and behavior modification. Now he is a true member of our family, but still fearful of new people and experiences. Thanks to the early training, I have ways to tell him, ‘It’s OK. You’re not in danger.’”
It goes against everything most pet owners would expect, but animals are never communicating a message of spite or revenge and they’re not trying to make you feel bad, says Ellen Mahurin.
“When we work with pet owners, we try to let them know a pet’s mind doesn’t work like a human’s—they’re not conveying a complicated emotion or trying to manipulate you.” she says.
Puppies usually chew destructively because it feels good, older dogs because they’ve been left alone and don’t have anything else to do to fill their time, says Mahurin. “He’s not trying to say, ‘I’m mad at you’ or ‘How could you leave me?’ the way a human might.”
A cat that poops in your shoe or sprays the carpet isn’t wreaking revenge for some real or imagined slight. “She is communicating an emotion, but it’s not directed at you, probably more along the lines of, ‘I don’t feel safe with the litter box in this open space,’ or ‘I don’t like that kind of litter.’”
Mahurin helps pet owners stop interpreting bad behaviors as personal insults and instead try to see ways their animals are expressing stress. “It’s important to see where the stress might be coming from and identify the causes so you can determine some solutions,” she says.
Sometimes Mahurin has to work against outdated ideas still being perpetrated by trainers and veterinarians. In the past 10-15 years, the scientific community has become more aware that the “wolf-pack” treatment of family pets is not appropriate, for example, but the information is just not filtering down locally, says Mahurin.
“The most dangerous thing people are still recommending has to do with physical punishment like ‘scruff shaking’ or rolling a dog onto its back. What people think they’re communicating is, ‘I am boss over you,’ but what these techniques more closely communicate is, ‘I am attacking you, you can’t trust me,’ which leads to aggression and other fear-based behavior problems.”
Ironically, says Mahurin, the whole wolf-pack training theory comes from poorly done scientific literature from the ’40s. “It turns out these are things wild wolves don’t even do to each other,” she says.
Mahurin combs the most up-to-date literature constantly for new ideas to help pet owners and pets develop stronger bonds and communicate more clearly. The parent of a newborn and 2-year-old with husband Rob, she says her efforts benefit her human-human bonds, too.
“Being in tune to animal body language and the way an animal is interacting with its environment makes me pay more attention to what is being said without words, whether it is one of my little babies, a toddler, my husband, or a pet parent.”
STEPHANIE WHITE, Lead Keeper
Knoxville Zoo Bird Show, Zoology degree UT
How she communicates: “Working with birds, especially parrots, you have to get to know their body language. If their eyes are dilating wildly, they may be feeling aggressive. Our birds are also food motivated, and we reinforce what we want them to do by learning their particular favorites. Edgar (the recently deceased black crow) really loved meal worms and meat balls. All us trainers have meaty hands and it’s pretty gross…you never know what we’ll have in our pockets.”
Our little secret: “I’m afraid of fish. They’re fine to look at, swimming around, but I won’t get in any water where I have a chance of encountering a fish.”
Stephanie White keeps an adopted African Grey, two dogs, and a cat as pets. The bird’s not very friendly, she says, though she loves him just the same, and none of the four-footers are particularly well-behaved. “I just relax with them,” she says. “When I see The Dog Whisperer, I always think, ‘I should do better.’”
At work, she does great. White’s the lead keeper for Knoxville Zoo’s free-flight, natural behavior bird show, and she and her group of trainers draw amazing feats from 14 birds ranging from Macaws to a crane.
“Ollie, the Barred Owl, was the first to fly to my glove,” she says. “It’s an experience I can’t even put into words, to have an owl fly to you—his wingspan is awesome. But he likes to mess with the trainer, hitting the glove hard and then flying up over your face instead of landing.”
Lieutenant Dan, the East African Crown Crane who each year flies to the stage and back to the hill where he’s housed, has to start learning his one trick all over as the show’s opening approaches, she says with a laugh. “It’s just a big deal for him, and he forgets over the winter.”
The legendary African Grey parrot Einstein, who’s 21 and has worked with many trainers, catches on much more quickly. Like all but one of the birds, who was born in captivity, she’s a rescue bird, adopted from a California couple when she was five.
“She’s in her 16th season and she knows the deal,” says White. “She’ll try out a new sound, and if we like it, we’ll reward it. After a lot of repetition with rewards, we’ll work in a vocal cue and reward that.”
“The larger her vocabulary gets, the harder it is to come up with cue words that don’t sound alike,” says White. “For example, at the end of the show, I have to speak all three words, ‘What do you say when it’s time to go?’ for her to reply.
“Sometimes Einstein tries to cheat on the cue, and then we can’t reward her or the whole cue gets messed up,” says White. “She has to say, ‘Oink, oink, oink,’ for the pig, but sometimes she tries ‘oink,’ and stops.”
Though the zoo show requires artificial measures, such as housing the birds separately and making certain none of them bonds too closely to any one trainer, the opportunity to open the public’s eyes more than justifies the training tactics, says White.
“A lot of people don’t understand how intelligent animals really are,” she says. “I like to help animals portray these special abilities, really show them off and make people think twice…a lot of species may not be around in 20 years, and the spark of this show, this interaction, might inspire the audience members to do something about it.”
TRACY ROSS, Trick and Roman Rider
Owner of TR Farms in Seymour, horseback instructor
How she communicates: “A good seat and good hands are the whole communication with a horse. It’s a harmonious dance with almost invisible communication, like two professional dancers working together. The really great trainers have always communicated through understanding the behavior of the horse, working their own energy through the horse. Some people are born with the ability, but everyone can learn to communicate with energy.”
Our little secret: “I had this German Shepherd named Charlie when I was 4 or 5 and we were really close. If mom needed to fuss at me, she would have to do it inside, or Charlie would grab her ankle and just hold it—he didn’t bite her, though. One morning I got punished because I wouldn’t finish my breakfast and my mom put the scraps outside in Charlie’s bowl. Later she looked outside and I was eating the food with him, side by side.”
When Tracy Ross says she has developed the kind of trust with a horse that you could bet your life on, it’s no exaggeration. Her signature stunt as part of the “extreme equitation” she performs at events ranging from Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) events to Wild West shows is the “tail drag”— her hanging backwards over the rear of her horse as he circles the arena, with her hands and head nearly dragging the ground just inches behind the horse’s pounding hooves.
Before the performance, too, her communication with Appaloosas Bandit, 23, and Pepper, 22, is critical. “They feel my energy and they know I’m nervous and they try to calm me down. They’re like, ‘This is cool.’ The gate can be open for a minute or so for us to go on but they wait for my verbal cue, ‘Let’s go,’ and then we’re off.”
Ross has 10,000 performances to her credit, working everywhere from rodeos in rural Pennsylvania to the 116th National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, but the trust and respect originate in her barn in Seymour, where she tends and trains some eight horses that play various roles in different shows—or might one day.
Mentored by legendary haute ecole rider, trainer, and entertainer Gaylord Maynard, she employs the instincts she was born with, practice, and training methods she’s borrowed and originated but never read in any book. She’s tamed many horses that others had given up on.
“When I first caught the Roman riding bug, I was working for Dixie Stampede in Myrtle Beach, and they’re like, ‘Here’s some horses for you,’” recalls Ross. “Bandit was this gelding who was so dominant he’d knocked two people’s teeth out when they tried to clip the hair from his ears, and Pepper was so nervous they couldn’t even bring her down the hall.”
Ross employed patience, touch, minimal harnessing and even classical music to earn the horses’ trust. She had them in the show within three months, with Ross herself Roman riding with one foot on each back at a full gallop. She’s had many training and trust successes in her 16-year career since, and she always notices the little quirks that make each horse an individual. Maynard (named after her mentor) has to wash each bite of hay he eats in his water first; Tucson has “big star syndrome” and as a result doesn’t like being left in the pasture or having flies on him.
Still, certain basics apply to all riders and horses in her domain, says Ross. “It’s all about your energy, so I never train when I’m mad or having a bad day,” she says. “I will start just about anybody out with bareback techniques, because that’s what gives you the first clue about a good seat.”
Just as important, she teaches her riding students and summer campers: “Always remember that you’re in the horse’s territory, whether it’s the stall or the pasture or the performance ring. Don’t walk up behind them, or make them activate their ‘fight or flight’ instinct.”
And mutual respect leaves no room for bullying. “Beware of a ‘natural trainer’ who’s wearing spurs or has a leverage bit or gag,” she says. “It might take longer, but you can teach all the same things with a direct pressure bit, without hurting the horse’s mouth. Never try to overpower a horse—you won’t win. If there’s proper communication and energy going, they’ll want to work for you…they’re just like me, they really want to perform.”
STEPHEN LYN BALES, Naturalist
Ijams Nature Center, Author of Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley (University of Tennessee Press)
How He Communicates: “All the birds of prey at the Ijams sanctuary have been injured, they must adapt to a lifestyle that’s not natural. The best we can do is give them a comfortable home and food and interact with them soothingly. I’ve had to learn to control my movements, to really slow down, to talk and move calmly and deliberately or they’ll get jumpy.”
Our Little Secret: “Our ancestors would laugh at me, at my job, at the thought that someone would have to tell people what the bird calls meant or how a fox left a trail. It’s only been in the last couple of generations that we’ve lost that connection to the world outdoors.”
Stephen Lyn Bales rarely resorts to talking to songbirds in their own language, but every now and then he finds it necessary to go “phishing,” which is pronounced “pishing” and means to imitate a bird’s alarm call.
“It’s almost impossible to catch a glimpse of certain songbirds, like the wide-eyed vireo or the common yellowthroat, so sometimes we trick them,” he says. “If you’re lucky, when you phish, the bird will hop up and look around for a couple of seconds before disappearing in the brush again.”
Mostly, though, Bales is content to listen carefully and let the birds do the calling. “Scientists are just now working out what so many songbird vocalizations mean,” says Bales, who’s particularly enthusiastic about recent studies of vocal communication among chickadees made by UT’s Todd Freeburg. “Like a cardinal going, ‘Cheer, cheer, cheer,’ that’s only the male and he’s telling the female birds, ‘Look how beautiful I am and just look at this territory I possess.’ And he’s telling other males, ‘Stay out of my tree.’”
At sundown, though, you can hear both genders of cardinal “chip chip chip” in the thickets. “You’ll hear one, then a pause, then ‘chip chip chip’ from another shrub,” says Bales. “They’re telling each other, ‘I’m going to bed now,’ just like the Waltons. And they’re also taking a census, ‘Did we lose anybody today?”
During the winter, says Bales, many different types of small songbirds might hang out together in a “mixed winter flock” and they can understand when one chickadee, or titmouse, or nuthatch, sounds the abrupt, abrasive note that is an alarm call.
“All the birds know, ‘Look up, somebody sees something!” says Bales. “And that’s when you should go look—there’s probably a hawk or a barn owl nearby. If it’s a murder of crows fussing, the big bird will probably be minding its own business, but they’ll surround it and keep cawing until they get bored or it moves off.”
Bales recommends sitting very, very still in the great outdoors for an hour or so whenever you can. “You’ll be amazed at what will present itself,” he says. “There’s a self-centered reason for doing this, you’re going to feel at peace.
“But you’re also going to say, ‘This is wonderful, we need to protect this.'"