Sunday September 25, 2011

WILLIAMSTOWN

The oddest message Bonnie Strange has ever had to convey was from a chinchilla that wanted to tell its owner, "Don’t throw out my halo."

When Strange relayed the request, the owner explained that she had dressed her pet as an angel for Halloween and the costume had included a halo. Upon hearing the message the owner hurried to rescue the beloved accoutrement from the garbage.

Strange, 59, is a full-time teacher in Pownal, Vt. She also helps pet owners better understand their animals’ needs as a pet communicator. She tunes into the energy and emotion of animals to find out how owners can better help their pets.

"Mostly people have questions that might be about health issues of their pet or medicines they’re giving them," Strange said. "It could be about behaviors too. I’ve had a lot of those."

One such behavioral case was a couple who had a dog that was tearing up the house whenever the pair left. They brought the offending canine to Strange to find out if something could be done. The dog, however, pleaded its innocence, insisting that one of the other dogs in the house was provoking it into the destructive behavior. The wrongly accused pooch was able to point out the real troublemaker as well.

"They took that dog, which [was] much easier to contain, and put it in a room, and the very next time they were gone: no tearing up the house, no problem at all. And since that time it has not happened," she said.

Strange has also helped owners find lost pets.

"It’s not 100 percent accurate," she said. "Some pets don’t want to go home, some pets are so lost they can’t get back, some pets get taken in, sent to a shelter, or go to someone new. But the ones that I seem to be able to find are the ones that want to go home the most. They are legitimately lost and are desperate to get back to their owners."

In one recent case a client’s dog had wandered off and gotten lost when the electric fence had failed. Strange fielded a frantic late-night call and provided a location that seemed to be partway up a nearby mountain. The dog’s owner recognized the site and set off immediately. At first she didn’t find anything. "But an hour later the dog came right back down, followed her trail, came right back home," Strange said.

Strange acknowledges that a great deal of skepticism exists in regards to her work.

"If you don’t have these experiences or you can’t validate the kind of work that I do, why would you believe in such a thing?" she said.

She suspects that a lot of this skepticism stems from the terminology. She says that when many people hear the word "communication," they think that the animal is somehow literally talking to Strange, like in a cartoon.

"When I’m reading an animal, it’s a picture I’m getting or an emotion or a name," she said.

However, she noted that most skeptics she’s encountered have been polite about their skepticism.

"I’ve never had anyone hassle me at an open session," Strange said. "I’ve been fortunate enough that whatever it is they’ve been skeptical about they’ve voiced it elsewhere. They’ll give me room to explain or say, ‘You have your beliefs, and I have mine, and I’m OK with that."

Strange also does public sessions, giving readings at venues such as Sweetwood Retirement Living Community in Williamstown.

"She’s one of first people I wanted to bring in," said John Krol, executive director of Sweetwood. "I’ve done other events with her in the past and she’s always been a great draw and very interesting. She’s someone with a great deal of insight and talent.

"I think people are genuinely surprised because they come in as skeptics, but when she has an opportunity to be one-on-one with someone and their pet, it’s really amazing."

According to Strange, the transition from private to public has been a learning experience for her, balancing the group format with the needs of the individual people and animals present.

"When I first started them, I remember a man saying ‘Do you really think that you can talk to us and tune into our pets too?’ And I said, ‘I really don’t know, let’s find out.’ The first few that I did, even though I’d get the sense from the animals, though I’d get the energy I would just honor the people. This one had a hand up or this one started to talk."

Over time, she said, she learned to trust the animals and follow their leads.

"They do tug at me. They tell me which ones need to talk or which owners need to talk and so over time I’ve learned to pay attention to them."

But just because they can communicate, does that mean animals always tell the truth? Has a cunning cat or duplicitous ferret ever colored the facts?

"Basically animals tell it like it is," Strange said. "Sometimes I think they aren’t giving me information exactly clearly or they might try to skirt an issue, but it could be my interpretation, too. They don’t have reasons to fudge it or magnify it or hold it back. I respect that."