Appendix H. Premonitions by Rupert Sheldrake © Rupert Sheldrake 2012 [1]

Many animals seemed to anticipate the great Asian tsunami on 26 December 2004, although their reactions were much closer to the actual event. Elephants in Sri Lanka and Sumatra moved to high ground before the giant waves struck; they did the same in Thailand, trumpeting beforehand.

According to villagers in Bang Koey, Thailand, a herd of buffalo were grazing by the beach when they 'suddenly lifted their heads and looked out to sea, ears standing upright.' They turned and stampeded up the hill, followed by bewildered villagers, whose lives were thereby saved.

At Ao Sane beach, near Phuket, dogs ran up to the hilltops, and at Galle in Sri Lanka, dog owners were puzzled when their animals refused to go for their usual morning walk on the beach.

In Cuddalore District in south India, buffaloes, goats and dogs escaped by moving to higher ground, and so did a nesting colony of flamingoes.

In the Andaman Islands, 'stone age' tribal groups moved away from the coast before the disaster, alerted by the behaviour of animals.

How did they know? The usual speculation is that the animals picked up tremors caused by the under-sea earthquake. But this explanation is unconvincing. There would have been tremors all over South East Asia, not just in the afflicted coastal areas.

Some animals anticipate other kinds of natural disaster like avalanches, and even man-made catastrophes. During the Second World War, many families in Britain and Germany relied on their pets' behaviour to warn them of impending air raids before official warnings were given. The animal reactions occurred when enemy planes were still hundreds of miles away, long before the animals could have heard them coming. Some dogs in London anticipated the explosion of German V-2 rockets. These missiles were supersonic and could not have been heard in advance.

With very few exceptions, the ability of animals to anticipate disasters has been ignored by Western scientists; the subject is taboo. By contrast, since the 1970s, in earthquake-prone areas of China, the authorities have encouraged people to report unusual animal behaviour, and Chinese scientists have an impressive track record in predicting earthquakes. In several cases they have issued warnings that enabled cities to be evacuated hours before devastating earthquakes struck, saving tens of thousands of lives.

By paying attention to unusual animal behaviour, as the Chinese do, earthquakes and tsunami warning systems might be feasible in many parts of the world that are at risk from these disasters. Millions of people could be asked to take part in this project through the media. They could be told what kinds of behaviour their pets and other animals might show if a disaster were imminent - in general, signs of anxiety or fear. If people noticed these signs, or any other unusual behaviour, they would immediately telephone a hotline with a memorable number - for example, in California, 1-800-PET QUAKE. Or they could send a message on the Internet.

A computer system would analyze the places of origin of the incoming messages. It there was an unusually large number, it would signal an alarm, and display on a map the places from which the calls were coming. There would probably be a background of false alarms from people whose pets were sick, for example, and there might also be scattered hoax calls. But if there was a sudden surge of calls from a particular region, this could indicate that an earthquake or tsunami was imminent.

Exploring the potential for animal-based warning systems would cost relatively little. From a practical point of view, it does not matter how animals know: they can give useful warnings whatever the explanation. It it turns out that they are indeed reacting to subtle physical changes, then seismologists should be able to use instruments to make better predictions themselves. If it turns out that presentment plays a part, we will learn something important about the nature of time and causation. By ignoring animal premonitions, or by explaining them away, we will learn nothing.[2]

End notes

[1] First published as part of Chapter 9 Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory? in The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry by Rupert Sheldrake (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2012, 392 pages, £8.99, ISBN 978 1 444 72794 4).

[2] See also three other books by Rupert Sheldrake: Seven Experiments That Could Change The World (1994; new edition 2002); Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999; new edition 2011); The Sense of Being Stared At (2003).