Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mookie has his mind probed

This story is the cover piece in the 12.20.06 Philadelphia Weekly.

MOOKIE IS LYING ON HIS SIDE, fast asleep on my bed. So I call his name and scratch his butt. I'm worried he can't have his mind probed while he's sleeping. Or worse, I envision the pet psychic communicator I'm speaking with on the phone appearing in his dreams Freddy Krueger-style.

That wouldn't be good.

“Yo, Mook,” I call, followed by a quick whistle.

He rolls over, offering his hairy belly. Then he falls back to sleep.

When I call his name again, he snorts. It's the sound he often makes when I turn off the lights at night, the last sound I hear before I fall asleep. It's the sound of a content dog.

I describe Mookie to the pet psychic communicator: He's a 4-year-old, 13-pound shih tzu, black and white, with a white beard on an otherwise dark face.

“He has hair in his eyes?” she intuits. “That's what I keep getting.”

He does.

Then there's silence.

“He says, ‘What?'” the pet psychic communicator says, apparently speaking for Mookie.

I ask her if Mookie likes the new kitten we've recently adopted.

“What do you think, stupid?” she answers. “He's saying that to me. He probably wouldn't be that disrespectful to you.”

She says Mookie is indeed upset that we've brought this frantic, playful creature into our house, and she says he wants to know, “Why didn't you warn me?”

I have no idea how to respond.

“She says, ‘I like him, I like him!'” the pet psychic communicator then says, now apparently speaking for Sunny, our 4-month-old kitten who's running around chasing a speck of dust. “Oh, she's a brat.”

“She's not afraid of me,” she says, speaking again for Mookie. “Why does she bother me?”

“Honey, she probably wants to play,” she replies in an elementary school teacher's voice, directed toward Mookie.

I feel like I'm listening to an after-school special. Mookie, meanwhile, is squirming to get comfortable on the bed. I rub his belly, trying to keep him awake.

“I don't want to play,” Mookie moans, according to the pet psychic communicator.

Then I hear heavy panting over the phone. The pet psychic communicator's ailing 13-year-old yellow lab Kodi has arrived at her side.

“The animals that come to us are such gifts,” she says. “They all bring such a gift to us.”

I smile, thinking about how much I love my dog. He's my best friend in the entire world. He goes with me when I get my hair cut. We chase squirrels together. And I take him to work when I can.

He sleeps with my girlfriend and me. He shares my meals. We walk for hours every day, and we play constantly.

But my best friend has been leaving me presents lately, and I'm not sure why. Since we brought the kitten home in September, Mookie has peed in our house about a half-dozen times. The reason seems obvious, but I can't say for sure there's a connection.

Which is why I'm consulting the pet psychic communicator.

Elizabeth Woelfel, 51, goes by Liza at work. Her family calls her Lee. If she had her druthers, she says, she'd be named Katie.

But on evenings and weekends, when she's on the phone, consulting with people and communicating with their pets from her home in Upper Dublin, she's Liesl—the conduit between humans and their animals, a Dionne Warwick for the four-legged crowd.

She claims that for a mere $25 she can bridge the gap between the species, act as a translator of sorts for you and your dog, cat, horse, pig, monkey, parrot, squirrel, whatever. During the 15-minute consultation she'll provide an opportunity for you to learn what your animals are thinking, and let you share your thoughts with them.

“I think everyone can communicate with animals,” she says. “But once people start speaking as children, we don't need our telepathic skills anymore. Our skills diminish, and that's how animals communicate.”

She's just managed to hold onto her telepathy a bit more than most.

“Why our home?” Mookie wants to know, says Liesl. “Why does she have to live here?”

I look at my sleeping dog lying upside down, his dirty white paws dangling in the air, and I can't imagine him really being this much of a pain in the ass. He can be stubborn and unwavering, but he's not often a whiny pest.

The new kitten was as much sprung on me as she was on him, I tell Liesl. My girlfriend wanted a cat. And she ran into some friends in the neighborhood who happened to come across a litter of strays.

There is silence.

“I just asked him if he can be friends with the kitty,” Liesl says. “He's not ready to make a decision yet.”

“I don't want her eating my food,” Mookie gripes, she says.

“Honey, I don't think she will,” Liesl says out loud.

“He's being very protective of his space, of his territory right now. And this is an intruder. Does he go to bed with you? He doesn't want to lose his spot in bed.”

I don't like the Mookie persona Liesl is presenting.

I ask her if Mookie is peeing because he's unhappy with the kitten.

“What do you think, stupid?” she says he answers.

A corporate relocator in Montgomery County by day, Liesl first realized she had a gift for understanding animals when she was 6 years old, and putting clothes on her cat.

“I could hear him so clearly,” she says. “He said, ‘Go away! Leave me alone!'”

She ran to her mother, but her mother said it was just her imagination.

When Liesl returned to the cat who was sporting a bonnet, she heard the cat say, “I mean it!”

Of course she didn't actually hear a voice. She says she just knew it. It was a feeling that came across her, an awareness of the animal's thoughts.

She continued to sense animals' feelings as a hobby, often helping friends, until 1990, when she began her consulting practice. Now she speaks with two or three clients every evening and a handful on Saturday mornings. She's helped people with sick and dying animals, lost pets and animals with behavioral problems.

On occasion she's even communicated with dead animals and people, but she says she finds that exhausting.

Liesl doesn't take credit cards and she doesn't send bills. She just tells people her rates and then waits for checks to arrive in the mail.

“I'm hardly ever disappointed,” she says.

All of her work comes through word of mouth. She has no website, no advertising and no psychic friends network.

I first learned about Liesl from a high-powered Philadelphia attorney while attending a party full of corporate big shots and political movers and shakers in a Main Line mansion. Liesl had discovered the attorney's dog had an allergy to grass that vets hadn't detected.

(The attorney asked not to be identified, and provided the following explanation: “I totally believe in her capabilities, as she was dead-on with what she said about our pets. Unfortunately, most of the lawyers in the city will think I'm a bit loopy if I'm quoted in this story. So as much as I'm behind Liesl, it could hurt me professionally to be directly quoted.”)

She's performed consultations for people around the region and as far away as Washington state, Hawaii, Canada and London. Her clients have included breeders, doctors, Indian chiefs, dog-show contestants, Katrina survivors and lots of regular folks.

“You just have to be open to it,” says Cindy Balzer, a veterinarian who started the Girard Veterinary Clinic in 1995.

About a decade ago Balzer operated on Wilbur, a rescued potbellied pig that had been mauled by a dog. Wilbur's wounds eventually healed, but his spirits were slow to recover. He just moped around, demoralized.

“I could treat the physical problems, but I couldn't deal with his mental issues,” Balzer says. “So I called Liesl.”

Liesl communicated Balzer's thoughts to Wilbur—he'll always be safe, he won't go back to the home where he was attacked, and he needs to take his medicine so he doesn't get an infection.

“He has no problems taking his antibiotics but he doesn't want you to trick him,” Balzer recalls Liesl saying.

“From that day on he took his pills, no problems, and he's been a confident, well-adjusted pig ever since.”

Not everyone in the scientific community is as accepting.

“I'm perfectly prepared to admit some people are remarkably sensitive to signals provided by animals,” says James Serpell, director of Penn's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (CIAS). “I find it very difficult to believe they're communicating on anything other than the physical level.”

Serpell says the study of human interaction with animals—and vice versa—is a relatively new field of academic study. CIAS was founded in 1979, but it withered and was reestablished in 1997. Only in recent years have scholars started presenting their findings about animal behavioral development, the connections between animals and religion and the effects of cultural influences on animals.

“The way we speak with animals is much like the way in which one communicates with another person with whom you don't speak the same language,” Serpell says. “We manage to get through to each other, but the communication isn't always perfect. In other words there may be misunderstandings because animals don't communicate their feelings in exactly the same way humans communicate their feelings.”

The idea that animals are sending messages through their actions—such as Mookie and his peeing—is preposterous to Serpell.

“I think that's being anthropomorphic,” he tells me. “What may well be the case is that your dog is unsettled by the arrival of the kitten and maybe concerned about his territory. Maybe peeing is a reflection of that.”

Dogs may become disturbed when their routines are disrupted, but to assume a dog has the cognitive process to become upset and then retaliate with an action like peeing, Serpell believes, is giving the dog too much credit.

“I think you're going too far when you say the dog is expressing himself—literally—as a means of telling you he's unhappy,” says Serpell. “That's not what it's about.”

The morning after my first conversation with Liesl, my girlfriend steps in a moist patch of pee on our carpeted stairwell landing. I try the Dog Whisperer method of stern talking, acting like the pack leader.

Mookie just looks scared.

As I scrub the carpet Mookie sidles against me, his butt down, head hanging low and his tail wagging tentatively as he nervously licks his nose. His big brown eyes stare up at me pathetically.

He knows he did something bad.

Liesl cautions that the animals don't always listen.

“I just have to trust what I get from the animal,” she says. “Whether it makes sense to me or not, I'll just relay it to the person I'm talking to.”

The large number of people who now seek her services, she says, speaks to how much people care for their animals. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Americans will spend about $38 billion providing care and nourishment for their animals this year.

Liesl stresses people should do what it takes to keep their pets happy and healthy. She's but one option available to them.

But sometimes more scientific methods are required.

At the Orianna Hill Dog Park in Northern Liberties, Mookie strolls over to his friend Rocket, a 3-year-old fox-colored collie-shepherd mix, and gives him a quick sniff. Mookie's tail flutters, but Rocket, sitting under Susan Crawshaw's legs, is intently watching other dogs frolicking in the park. Then Rocket shoots off to join the merriment, jumping over a bichon-frise and dancing around a scottie.

“Here he's like the mayor of the dog park,” Crawshaw says. “He was a terror in our house.”

Shortly after being adopted about a year ago, Rocket would go crazy when he heard noises outside his house—people, trucks, the mailman. He'd spin in circles, bark, growl, chase cats and tear up the rug. He shredded the mail that came in the door slot, and one day he bit Crawshaw's hand while she was accepting a package. She had to be treated by a hand specialist at Jefferson.

“He thought his territory was being invaded,” Crawshaw says. “We were afraid he was going to hurt himself.”

Even the phone sent him into an uncontrollable rage. With just a few rings, the otherwise sweet dog turned into a savage beast.

Rocket did fine in obedience training, but that didn't resolve his issues at home. Crawshaw tried massage therapy—stroking pressure points by his ears. She tried positive reinforcement training with treats. She experimented with a choke leash, and even tried flipping him on his back and lying on him for 60 seconds like someone had recommended. She took him to see a Penn animal behavior specialist. She tried three different herbal remedies and an electric aromatherapy treatment called dog-appeasing pheromone.

“We plugged it into an outlet near the door, from where most of Rocket's anxiety seemed to stem,” Crawshaw says. “He promptly growled at it, went on a barking frenzy over its intrusion and bit it out of the wall.”

Penn specialist Karen Overall said Rocket suffered from anxiety disorder, protective aggression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She prescribed a cocktail of medications that would balance Rocket's neurochemical makeup.

“We felt like we were failing him and relying on the pharma industry,” Crawshaw says. “But she said there's a very sweet dog in there. His brain's just not working right.”

So Crawshaw bought generic Prozac from Target, and started feeding it to her dog.

When the meds didn't kick in right away, Crawshaw considered contacting a pet communicator. She was desperate. She even considered finding a new home for Rocket, but she knew that would only make his life worse. He'd been re-homed several times, which was likely the source of his anxiety.

Then the drugs kicked in.

Within months Rocket was a mild-mannered dog, peaceful at home and playful at the park.

But he's still in training following a regimen of “protocols for deference” ordered by the Penn specialist. The protocols teach the dog to rely upon the owner to help make the right decisions. That places a massive burden of responsibility on the owner.

“Either you're training the animal or he's training you,” Crawshaw says.

“I'm open to anything that would be good for my pigs,” says Susan Magidson, owner of Ross Mill Farm in Rushland, Bucks County. She has 130 potbellied pigs, 80 of which are up for adoption. Since she entered the business 14 years ago, she's placed more than 1,000 of the 120-pound porkers.

Magidson started calling Liesl about 10 years ago, when a pig named Fester started nipping at potential parents.

“He was a very nice pig to everyone, but every time I had someone who was interested in adopting him, he'd snap at them,” she says.

Liesl communicated with the wrinkle-faced black pig, and discovered he was worried about where he'd be taken.

Magidson spoke to Fester through Liesl, “He can make the decision about who he goes with. I'm not going to make it for him.”

Fester continued snapping at people for several months after the consultation. Then one day a couple asked to take Fester home. Magidson put a crate inside Fester's living space and said, “It's up to him.”

Then she watched the pig walk right into the box.

“It was so clear to me that Fester was fine with them,” Magidson says.

He's been with that family ever since.

“Liesl could see her,” Brenda Koller says of her cat Precious, who'd been missing for a week. “She said she was alive, surrounded by tires, and she could see pine trees and a hay wagon.”

Precious told Liesl she'd return to her Bucks County home in two days. To show there were no hard feelings, the cat told Liesl she'd leave a dead mouse at the house the next morning.

“The next day I find a mouse on the front step,” Koller says. “And the day after that, the cat walked right in the front door.”

After Zelda was spayed, she wouldn't eat and wouldn't use the litter box.

“She just curled behind the toilet and wouldn't move,” says Gina Downs, a rescuer of stray cats and owner of the Fairmount-based pet-sitting business the Pet Nanny.

After three days of inactivity, Downs called Liesl.

“First, she says she has a name,” Liesl told Downs. “Her name is Sassy.”

Downs wanted to take Sassy to the vet to make sure she was recovering properly from her surgery so she could be released into the wild. Liesl expressed Downs' thoughts to Sassy, and the next day Sassy ate, used the litter box and walked into the pet carrier, Downs says.

Like many of Liesl's clients, Downs now speaks with Liesl several times a year.

“It's not like she performs miracles or anything,” Downs notes. “But I learn how to modify my behavior and make things easier for the animals.”

Real estate agent Janet Lippincott calls Liesl at least once a year just to see if any of her animals has anything to say. She most recently spoke with Liesl after she brought a sixth cat to her Chestnut Hill home.

“No more cats!” Ambler, one of the original cats, told Liesl.

Mookie likes fluffy dogs, so when he sees Hugh, an 18-month-old American Eskimo, he heads directly for him. But Hugh, a 35-pound ball of white fur, lunges at Mookie, straining at the end of his leash, barking loudly and flashing sharp white teeth.

Denise LeGendre tugs Hugh's leash and apologizes.

When Hugh calms down and sits at her feet, LeGendre offers him a piece of string cheese and says, “That's a good boy.”

For a few moments Hugh is quiet, but then another dog walks by. He springs toward that dog, and then at Mookie, who's hiding behind my legs. Before I realize it, Hugh snaps at me and bites my jeans.

“It's a combination of frustration and excitement,” LeGendre tells me remorsefully.

A moment later I rub Hugh's ears and pat his back, and it's as if nothing ever happened.

Since he was just a puppy, LeGendre has taken Hugh to various training classes—puppy kindergarten, obedience classes, agility programs and a tricks course. She's tried click training, treat training and various other methods people suggested.

But Hugh remains a defiant dog who barks and growls and can't socialize with dogs or people because he makes bad choices uncontrollably. He barks at bikers and he lunges at people on scooters.

“He has that George Bush mentality—attack first,” LeGendre jokes.

Finally, a few weeks ago, she consulted a different pet psychic, Lillie Goodrich.

“He feels lost and confused when you aren't paying attention to him,” Goodrich told LeGendre. “He's going to be 5 years old before he's the dog you want him to be.”

The psychic made a few personal observations that made LeGendre a believer, and it gave her a little optimism. Now she's trying to limit Hugh's ability to make mistakes, she says, and she vigilantly rewards him for his good behavior.

The coming days are as difficult on our pets as they are on people.

“Holidays are a time when routines tend to go out the window,” says Serpell, the Penn researcher. “It's very confusing and loud and noisy and boisterous, and strangers are walking in and out. I think animals do find that quite an unsettling time.”

Between the parties and the shopping and the being left home alone for long periods of time, I'm worried my sensitive little dog might pee in the house again.

“Mookie, no more peeing in the house,” Liesl says the next time we converse by phone. “Only outside, sweetie.”

Then, in silence, she consults Mookie about the kitten.

“I suggested to him that he help Sunny learn the rules,” Liesl tells me.

“I'll try, but she doesn't listen,” Mookie allegedly responds.

“Well, tell her how important it is to you, honey,” Liesl says.

She tells me Mookie wants me to understand his feelings. I nod.

“Well, I hope it works,” Liesl tells me. “Just secure him more, okay? Make sure he knows he's a special boy.”

It's hard for me to be kinder to him—he means the world to me and always has. But I try. We walk a little longer than before, I let him sniff more than usual, and I slide him a little more ham at lunch.

Since my last consultation with Liesl, Mookie hasn't peed in the house.

But who knows if there's a connection.