Ears twitching wildly, Nikki and Lucy hovered near the telephone, aroused by the caller on the other end.
He was their "cat whisperer," and the girls had something to tell me: "Their food tastes like sawdust."
Nikki and Lucy are my 10-year-old cats. They were nice to each other up until a year or so. That's when the hissing started, and the bullying, and the sporadic indifference.
That's also when Nikki, shy and small-boned, began packing on the pounds and chronically licking her tummy until the fur was gone, opening up sore spots that compounded the problem.
Was it middle age? Our five-room apartment closing in? I decided to consult an animal communicator, aka whisperer, to get an alternative read on their well-being and their relationship.
I was skeptical about the trade, which is largely unregulated, with varied training and certifications. I was further puzzled by the notion that whisperers often do their thing by phone and e-mail as well as up close and personal, charging anywhere from $30 to $300 for their insights.
But could millions of viewers who made a star out of "The Pet Psychic" Sonya Fitzpatrick on Animal Planet be wrong? Whisperers even have their own magazine, "Species Link: The Journal of Interspecies Telepathic Communication," offering training opportunities, "plus prose and poetry transcribed directly from our non-human friends," according to its Web site.
Cathy Malkin-Currea, an editor of Species Link and whisperer herself in Martinez, Calif., said there is no clearninghouse on the number of animal communicators working today. But she estimated their ranks at about 2,000 worldwide. She said 50 to 60 books have been written on the subject after practitioners came out of the shadows about a decade ago.
My whisperer, Tim Link in suburban Atlanta, was a telecommunications company executive for 20 years before a "Dr. Dolittle" moment in 2004, when he attended a workshop on animal communication. Link, a lifelong animal lover and volunteer president of his local humane society, gave up his day job and said he has since whispered hundreds of dogs, cats, horses, amphibians, birds, reptiles and insects.
"It was like a large portal opening and animals saying, 'Hey, this guy can hear me and I have something to say and I'm going to say it,"' Link explained. "At first it was very shocking and I had to digest it. Animals have a lot to say to us. Every animal has a tale. We just need to open up and listen to them."
Animals, he said, communicate using emotions, thoughts, images and feelings. Link and others work on behavioral problems (Yo, what's up with not using the litter box?), health issues and even finding lost pets.
So what's on the minds of our pets? After I submitted photos of the cats in advance, they hovered uncharacteristically near the telephone during our session.
"It's not an itching," Link said of Nikki's licking. "It's sort of a tingling that starts in her throat area and goes down to her stomach. I feel some blockage that starts at her throat and goes to her kidney area. She's got many years left, but you might want to get her kidneys checked, and keep an eye on her thyroid."
Nikki's last checkup revealed her kidneys were fine but she was in the high range of normal for thyroid function, along with a lot of cats her age.
"Lucy pesters the heck out of her," Link continued. "Lucy gets on her nerves but you know, she's not fearful of Lucy. It's a love-hate sister relationship."
It was Lucy's turn next. Link said he could see her "strong, healthy body" and that she took offense when I told him she and her sister spend a whole lot of time sleeping.
"Oh boy," he said. "She didn't like the fact that you said she just lays around all the time."
Lucy jumped off the computer table and turned her back on me at a nearby window at the remark. Link told me she wanted more one-on-one time.
Sadly, it's true that I've been marginalizing Lucy lately, primarily because she's been so grumpy and scaring Nikki away. I promised Lucy I'd do better.
As for the unfavorable review of their cuisine - it's hard to argue, but also hard to imagine that the cats know what sawdust is.
"Oh yes," Link said. "Animals have normal vocabularies, like you and me."
Animal whispering, it seems, is one of those things you're either open to or you're not. Link himself urges those interested to check references and choose carefully. People often involve themselves with whisperers at vulnerable times, seeking to communicate with a dead pet or looking for guidance on when to euthanize.
Stephanie Shain, the outreach director for companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., hired an animal communicator for a phone consultation about five years ago when she was dealing with her extremely ill cat, Thomas.
"She started by saying `First you should know that he loves you so much, and that he isn't ready to die yet,"' Shain said. "Maybe she starts all her calls like that but it had me sobbing instantly. I was amazed by what she told me, not only about the health stuff but about his relationships with the other cats in my house."
The whisperer led Shain in the direction of a pet allergist, and Thomas is alive today.
But Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University and past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, likened animal communicators to "fortune tellers," adding: "It's never been studied scientifically and so there are a lot of people who make claims that cannot be verified."
As for our girls, it's hard to believe, but after one session, Nikki stopped her compulsive licking, and her fur is growing back. We've given Lucy more one-on-one time and reminded her to stay away from Nikki's food and water bowl and favorite chair.
We haven't had a single hissing incident, and Lucy has stopped pinning Nikki under the futon or digging her face into Lucy's rear end.
So far, it's a success. But it's not clear what was more important - Link's talk with the cats, or his talk with us.
Dr. Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian in Laguna Hills, Calif., said animal owners sometimes seek to center themselves through their pets, and whisperers make it easy.
"There are truly people who have this special empathy, that have a connection that we'll never be able to understand," she said. "The animal communicator gives you and your pet peace."
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