Scientific sceptic Laure-Anne Visele interviews animal communicator Marieke Akgul. Conducted in January 2015. Article by Laure-Anne Visele, published in September 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post
Marieke, animal communicator
Marieke lives with her husband and their five cats close to Groningen (North of the Netherlands). What intrigued me was that part of her job is to, like me, helps answer people’s questions about their animal’s behaviour. There is a difference in our approach, though, and a sizeable one at that: she does it through animal communication, and I do it through evidence-based behaviour therapy.
My leaning towards scientific scepticism is no secret. I love going on excursions with fellow skeptics to paranormal fairs to explore their claims. That’s where I met Marieke. She was hosting the DierenDialoog booth. She was so transparent about her work, so nice to talk to and so understanding of the idea that it could raise skepticism that we arranged this follow-up interview.
Read on for a conversation between scientific sceptic and animal communicator.
About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague
Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele
My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.
I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).
If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.
It started with a beluga whale
Laure-Anne Visele – How did this all start for you? What led you to the conclusion that you could communicate with animals?
Marieke Akgul – I’ve always felt different. Even as a kid I’d always reacted differently to things. I sensed I had a gift but you know how is it when you grow up: you try to blend in. I only found out much later that I was high-sensitive.
LV – When was that?
MA – It was in 2005. I got to swim with Beluga whales whilst on holidays. I was alone out there with the Belugas when and then I heard: “Do you know where my family is?” I said “I don’t know but I can bring you back.” So I held the whale and guided it back. I am scared of the smallest fish yet this felt completely natural. I looked at the trainer and saw that look in his face. He looked at the Beluga, then back at me. He knew something real had just happened.
Marieke’s first AC experience was with a Beluga whale
LV – What did you do after that experience?
MA – Nothing. I was too scared of the paranormal to pursue this. As a high-sensitive a horror movie is like reality to me. These things could really happen because of my ability.
LV – So when did you take it to the next step?
MA – When my cat, Maya, died. I needed answers. It felt like a part of me had died with her. I started to read more about it and I learnt to open up to the signal. As a high-sensitive, it came relatively easily to me. First I heard my cat Joey talk to me.
LV – What did you hear?
MA – Numbers. It was all about what time it was, that it was time for him to go out. “Eight”, he’d say. I would check and it was eight o’clock. It was the right time each time he said a number. To the nearest minute.
How Marieke explains her experience
LV – Does this rest on the assumption that a cat can read time?
MA – No, not time. Moments. Everything is a process with its own flow; its own cycle. Animals are connected to us, to each other, and to these cycles. They grasp some concept of time through their connection with us. He knows it’s eight o’clock because I know it’s eight o’clock. And I need a clock to tell me this but the cat just knows what time it is.
LV – Do you have a particular process to communicate with the animal?
MA – People send me a picture of their animal with a question. I then look at the picture to connect with the energy of the animal. If I feel its energy – its lifeline – it is still alive and I can sense where it is. Every individual animal has its own distinct frequency. I need to tune in to that frequency to connect.
Then I use my heart to send out a question and I get the answer back in my heart, and my heart translates it into images, movies, feelings. My head then translates these into words. It took me years to fine-tune it, to calibrate what image belongs to what emotion or thought. I am still developing in it.
LV – How does a communication moment go?
MA – It is like an interview conversation, like a Q & A. I ask more and more precise questions to get to the answers my clients need.
LV – How do you think it works?
MA – For missing animals cases, I think the animals who live in my house form a beacon of light which amplifies their missing friends’ ability to connect with me. Somehow that really works. Maybe it isn’t me, but the animals communicating through me.
The need for evidence
LV – These are things you believe to be true but how do you demonstrate to yourself, and to the world, that they are? How do you rule out the possibility that you might be mistaken?
MA – Because I experience it so frequently. I have spoken to so many animals professionally. At the last count it was 273 cats, 114 dogs, 25 rabbits, 13 parrots, and 4 reptiles.
LV – But those are still four hundred personal experiences. How do you validate your feelings objectively?
As hard as it is, we need objective measurement
MA – There has been almost no records of people scientifically investigating animal communication.
LV – Oh I can put you onto these experiments if you want. It’s been tested. The book Paranormality (see reference section), for example, reviews some of the most interesting of these experiments. We could even run your own work through scientific testing. I am a trained scientist. I would love to design a protocol for us to go through.
MA – That would be very interesting! But if an animal is connected to a human who doesn’t believe, the animal may not communicate. Take this lady who called me: “I don’t believe in this, but I have this problem with the dog. Can you help?” I tried to make a connection but the dog didn’t tell me a thing. He didn’t want me to know anything.
LV – That argument makes it immune to scrutiny so what evidence do you need for yourself to know it is real? A problem being resolved after your intervention is open to many fallacies and biases. Take post hoc, ergo propter hoc for example. Just because it got solved after your involvement does not mean it got solved because of your involvement. Many other untested explanations exist and many other things, besides your communication, happened in that period that you chose not to attribute to the solution. How do you exclude the effect of other alternative explanations, or the effect of time for that matter?
MA – What convinces me is that I do it so often and I get the same results every time. I make sure to include verifiable information in the report I type for the owners when I make contact with an animal.
LV – You must be fast typist!
MA – Yes!
LV – How long is the report, typically?
MA – It’s three to eight pages long. It depends on how long the conversation was.
LV – So what type of validating information do you collect for the owner? Can you give me an example?
MA – I include specific, verifiable things like ‘a big red pillow’. I try to ask the animal about their habits or preferences: like hating the neighbour’s cat, loving fish, or loving the family’s kid, or what their nickname is. There was this dog who had a nickname only the owner and the dog knew, for example. I like to go through this verification process for myself too, not just for the people.
The owners get back to me with the same feedback: so many things rung true to them. They totally recognized their animal in the report.
LV – So the reports fit the owner’s perception of their animal’s personality? By the way, the concept of personality in animals isn’t considered scientific heresy. Personality traits have been recognized, measured and observed in many rungs of the animal kingdom, not just humans. If you are interested in finding out more about this body of research, look into coping styles and personality research in animals. It’s very interesting work.
Cognitive bias: The many patterns different people saw in the same picture of moon
But the owners finding matching personality traits in the reports is opened to confirmation bias. If you say enough things, some will be a match, and the reader will remember the hits and disregard the misses. That’s also how stereotypes are born and that is what astrologers, soothsayers and mediums (consciously or not) rely on.
MA – I see what you are saying, but take this interesting case. The owner recognized the dog’s idiosyncracies, his level of sophistication, immediately from the way he structured his sentences in the report. The owner found it unmistakable.Every animal has its own set of words, intelligence shown, structure of sentences, etc., not just this dog. And it fits with their owners’.
He [the owner] had contacted me after he’d left his dog in the care of his ex-girlfriend and found out years later that she’d put him up on Marktplaats [the Dutch e-Bay]. When I spoke to the dog, he told me that he had passed away but that he had had a happy life. He said such sweet things that his huge man of an owner cried when he was reading the report. The dog said he didn’t blame him at all. After all these years, it was such a healing experience for the owner. He could get closure. All these emotions could finally break free.
I know it’s not verifiable but in his heart he knew it was real. We have to follow our intuition. And it tells us whether or not something is true.
LV – Unfortunately intuition is a notoriously unreliable evaluation tool. It is too open to errors like cognitive biases and motivated thinking. This is why scientifically evaluating things is necessary to validate a claim.
MA – But if I read something, I get a sense of whether it’s true or not.
LV – Oh don’t get me wrong. I am sure that you have a fine intuition about animals’ emotions and their needs. And I am sure that these sensitivities bring valuable information to the owners in many cases. The problem is how do you ever know whether you’re right without external validation?
Animals and emotions
MA – It’s interesting you should say ‘emotions’. A lot of people see their animals as one-dimensional creatures with no capacity for emotions.
LV – No modern animal behaviour scientist would deny that many animal species are capable of experiencing emotions. My dog behaviour therapy practice relies on much of this research in anthrozoology and comparative psychology, for example.
Emotions are not just the dominion of human animals.
MA – That’s interesting! It certainly matches what I observe. There is no doubt in my mind that animals experience emotions. But many animal ‘lovers’ think their pets only need good food and a long walk to lead a happy, satisfying life.
Research validates what we all knew: animals are not mere input-output machines
LV – That’s so true. Well-meaning people fail to provide their companion animal with their most basic emotional and cognitive needs. This can cause so much silent distress – until behaviour problems arise.
MA – To me, this opens the possibility that animals have a soul. Take altruism in animals. If you believe that some animals try to help you, then they must know you need help. They also have to understand the consequences of their actions.
LV – I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘soul’ but I can echo some of your observations there. Animal empathy and altruism are rich areas of research and the jury is most certainly still out. There is growing support for the idea that your average family dog snuggling up to you when you’re upset, for example, could actually be trying to comfort you. If you are interested in theory of mind and consciousness research in dogs, I can point you to the work of Adam Miklosi or Brian Hare, among others. And you’ll love books like Animal madness and How we know what animals think and feel.
Owner – dog emotional contagion
MA – I think the biggest reason animals don’t understand Man so well is animals only grasp the ‘now’. We project into the past and the future but animals don’t. If you reminisce about something negative, the animal interprets this as you experiencing something negative right now. This can cause behaviour problems. Imagine your dog attacked another dog in the past and now you have approached every dog you have met on a walk with apprehension since then. Your dog will sense this.
Animals and empathy: a rich area of research
LV – Agitation by the human guardian can complicate an existing problem, no doubt. Our animals look to us for clues about the safety of a situation, about how alert they should be.
MA – Absolutely. From the owner’s perspective, it’s: “My dog attacks other dogs.” From the dog’s perspective it’s: “My human is so low on energy, so anxious, right now. He is asking for trouble. This is prompting the other dogs to attack us. So I have to preempt this before they attack my human.”
LV – Something close to that heuristic might indeed play a role in fear aggression, but I wouldn’t necessarily frame it as explicit reasoning on the dog’s part. I find it more prudent to couch it in this context: the dog’s adopts a ‘the best defense is offence’ coping strategy. If the human handler is exhausted or stressed out, their dog may feel more vulnerable and might perceive other dogs as a threat sooner, lowering their threshold of aggression. Having the human handler relax in the problem situation can be an instrumental part of solving fear aggression problems.
MA – When I communicate to these dogs, they tell me they are trying to ask their owner to project more confidence. Once I have explained this to the owner, the positive changes I see give me this incredible feeling.
LV – I would argue that you are a more effective agent for change than I am in some ways. Framing the problem as a direct communication from the dog can be extremely compelling to the owner. More compelling than reviewing the possible scientific explanations or simply saying: “We don’t know what your dog is thinking, but we know what has the best chance of working in these cases.”
Example Case 1: Two over-pressured Malinois
LV - Tell me about one particular cases of change that you found interesting.
MA – One of the nicest examples of change was with two Malinois. They were extremely well-trained but their owner tried to controlled their every movement. He wanted to completely own them. He was frustrated at their poor performance in trials in light of how well they performed in practice sessions. He was a very black-and-white type of man.
LV – What did you get from communicating with these dogs?
MA – They told me: “Why does he ask us to do these things twenty, forty times? He knows we can do it. On the big day he acts all nervous and it makes us nervous too. We don’t get why he needs a piece of paper telling him we can do it?”
LV – So what happened in that case?
MA – I told them to humour their owner on the day and just go through the motions. I explained he needed the piece of paper to give him confidence. They couldn’t wrap their head around why but they did it.
Purring: science versus protons
MA – I am curious: how is purring interpreted scientifically?
LV – As in many things in the scientific literature, there is no clear consensus. A conservative explanation is that it is a type of sound that communicates the cat is experiencing comfort (or feeling very ill).
MA – My cats explained it to me: everything is a vibration. Your chair, for example, is vibrating through neutrons. Purring carries soothing vibrations through the cat’s entire body and if you touch them when they are purring, then it goes through your body too. It helps calm your body down. It is like an anti-depressant for themselves (and people touching them). That’s why cats purr after a car accident or when they are really sick: for self-reassurance.
LV – Again our two worlds meet in a sense. Petting a (purring) cat has been demonstrated to lower many people’s blood pressure and caring for a cat can alleviate many depressed patients’ symptoms. And, although I am not sufficiently well-read in that area of research, purring as a self-soothing sound is a conceivable idea. You could check the anthrozoology literature to find out more. I do not think we have good grounds to implicate vibrating protons though.
A shared struggle: Getting people to change their ways
LV – So what’s the toughest part of your job?
MA – I find it hard to bring people to a place they can change.
LV – You and me both. Getting the people to change is often key but it can be hard to do.
MA – I had this family contact me, for example. They’d taken in a stray dog from Greece but didn’t have time to take him for a daily walk. They wanted him to do his business in the garden. He’d lived on the street all his life and then became permanently constrained to a house and garden at the age of six. He told me “I am not going to pee in that garden. It is my territory. I am not soiling it.” I told them what he said and asked if they could get up earlier to take him out. They refused. He had to listen, they said. I just couldn’t let this him go so I spoke to him three of four more times after that. He kept saying the same thing. In the end, I told the owners: “Either find him a new house or find a trainer that he clicks with.”
LV – Lack of mental and physical stimulation can indeed cause chronic stress, thus behaviour problems, in animals – particularly ones that were used to roaming freely. And adult dogs do tend to avoid soiling their home range. So our reasoning might, again, have followed similar lines in this case, if you remove the animal communication element.
Example Case 2: A cat tied to fireworks
LV – Talk to me about another case that you found interesting.
MA – This week, I had a cat who ran off on New Year’s Eve [fireworks during Dutch New Year’s eve is famously traumatic for pets]. Her owners had tried to find her for three weeks. I made contact with her and helped her get over her trauma. She explained that she had gotten burnt, that she had had fireworks tied to her back. She communicated this through sounds and colours… And panic. When her fur caught fire, she said, she ran away. I explained to her that not all people were like that. I explained what had happened. The following Friday, her owners called me back to say she’d come back. They found her on the front lawn in a state of shock.
LV – Were there burn marks on her?
MA – No. But she was in such a state of shock that she was no longer the same cat. Her energy had changed.
LV – How can you attribute her return to your intervention? Or validate that she did get abused with fireworks?
MA – The cat confirmed it to me two days after I’d spoken with her. The owner also believed it. I also said she would return, and she did.
Animals as teachers
LV – What happens in the process when an animal dies?
MA – I instantly know the animal is dead, or dying. As soon as I make the connection.
LV – What does that do to you emotionally?
Animals remind us to slow down. And it’s a good thing
MA – It’s a fact of life. I feel how they are preparing for a new life. I know they are looking forward to going and starting something new. They feel positive in these moments because they were able to teach their owners a lesson during their time together.
Almost all animals are here to help us grow. Take a shy person and her shy dog, for example. Some dogs transform themselves to teach their owners. This shy dog became more outgoing to give the owner an example.
And take cats. They often walk in front of us. It is irritating but it is them reminding us that we are not living at our natural rhythm, that we are too rushed. It’s their way of slowing us down and bringing us back to a state of natural peace. They’re helping – but it irritates us!
LV – That’s the effect with most unrequited help gets, to be honest.
MA – [laughs] Yup. It certainly is!
LV – Again, I am with you on animals being useful examples for us. Only I don’t make the leap that they teach us consciously. Their ‘in-the-now’ approach can remind us to be more mindful, to live more for the moment. I do not have sufficient reason to see them as conscious teachers though. Just inspiring examples.
Advising around the euthanasia decision
LV – So what is a typical case for you?
MA – I get a lot of calls for behaviour problems and for missing animals. And then I also get more spiritually minded people wanting to know if their animals had a past life, what they can learn from the animal, what the purpose of the animal’s life is… That sort of big questions. A lot of owners also want help deciding whether it is time to let their animal go. They want a confirmation from the animal that they are ready to go.
LV – Do you ever say no to a planned euthanasia?
MA – Sometimes. It sometimes happens that the owner says it is time to let go but that the animal gets pretty mad. In most cases the animals are more OK with death than we are, though. Sometimes the animals just ask to die in their owners’ arms, in their home rather than at the vet’s.
But humans imagine animals experiences pain the same way they do. They don’t. So owners can be in too big of a rush to end the pain when really the animal can live with it and is not suffering that much. Animals have a higher sense of pain than us.
I had a rabbit once, and her hind quarters were paralyzed. She told me: “I don’t know what it is. It feels funny. It’s just not working.” I asked “What do you want us to do?” and she said: “Just leave me here”.
LV – Ethically, you’re treading dangerous waters here. If you’re wrong, it will have biiiiig consequences. Literally life or death, and a lot of potential suffering.
MA – I know. And I know where my line is. With my rabbit, I had it confirmed by the vet. It turns out she had a tumour in her belly that was blocking the pain. The vet said it was unbelievable the rabbit didn’t seem to be suffering given the size of the tumour. So for any kind of medical situation I always advise people to check with their vet.
[Note to the public: Please note that rabbits in distress can go into tonic immobility. It is also a typical prey animal strategy to hide your pain, as rabbits routinely do when live-castrated. If you suspect something is awry, please do not conclude that your rabbit is in no pain because it is not showing apparent signs of distress.]
”Where is the harm?”
LV – I am glad we are talking of harm. I often get asked: “Where is the harm in alternative medicine?” One of my biggest issues is that it can lead us to fail in our duty of care to our animals. Do you work with cases involving medical issues?
MA – I had this case of a cat with a thyroid problem. The cat told me “I don’t have the problem, my owner does. She’s projecting. Please get her to get this checked.” The owner did get it checked and sent me a mail saying her blood work was clear.
So I told the cat: “You made a fool of me. Why did you say these things?” This big macho cat then said sheepishly: “I don’t like that I am diminished, impaired. I hate that my body is not working as it should. If we get this checked, I am probably going to have to get an operation and take medication for the rest of my life. I hate medication.” It’s hard when that happens, when the owner says: “That’s not right”. But in general, animals do not lie.
LV – If I was that owner, I’d think. “Hang on a minute. You can’t just change your story when it didn’t work out. That’s too easy.”
MA – Yet somehow something about the rest of my conversation with the cat resonated with the owner and told her that I was telling the truth.
LV – Regardless of medical issues, you also give behaviour advice without being trained as a behaviour therapist. Isn’t there a chance you are delaying the dog getting the qualified care he or she needs? What happens to these problems if they go to you, instead of a trained specialist?
MA – It depends on how profound the problem is. But I have really good results with common problems.
About the risk of con artists
LV – What do you call yourself?
MA – I call myself a communicator. I thought about it for a long time, and I don’t like the sound of medium. Whenever I see one on TV, I turn it off.
LV – So you see it too right? That infuriating fakeness. The cheap con tricks? The staging?
Quacks, con artists, and miracle peddlers: how to detect charlatans in an industry with unverified claims?
MA – I have a love-hate relationship with it. I often participate along with the show so I know when it’s fake.
LV – This is another issue I see with lack of scientific validation: the market becomes wide open to people who consciously deceive their audience, con artists. That’s why I find it so important to rigorously validate claims, particularly in a therapeutic setting.
MA – Absolutely. Animal communication can be a gold mine for dishonest people. I was at this pet fair once and these people showed me a picture of a huge Rottweiler on their phone. So I said: “He is a sweet dog to everyone and everything. But he is quite smart and cheeky and once you say ‘yes’, he’ll demand the privilege again and again.”
They said they’d talked to another communicator before, who had sent them twenty lines of generic stuff like “You have to be firm with him”. So I said: “He’s just really smart. He needs to use his mind a lot is all.” They were happy with my interpretation. They said I really knew what I was doing.
And I was at another fair and started talking to this high-sensitive medium doing Reiki. She said she’d seen lots of people claiming to be animal communicators, but that she was happy to finally see someone who knew their stuff.
I try to be as sincere and open and transparent as I can in my work.
LV – That’s the sense I got. Whilst we do not agree on the need for validation, it’s certainly been a pleasure talking to you!
Getting in touch with Marieke