Why Indian Pet Owners Are Calling on Doctor Dolittle

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Why you should care

Because animals lovers on the subcontinent increasingly are turning to pet psychics.

The photograph that Vasundhara Vee handed animal communicators Tarun and Celia Cherian only captured two-thirds of the Mumbai-based singer’s living room. But gazing at the photo, Celia was able to pinpoint the spot — not in the image — where Vasundhara’s dog Monk would regularly urinate.

The dog, named after American jazz legend Thelonious Monk, was 1,400 miles away in Delhi. But sitting in Bangalore, Celia told Vasundhara that Monk was talking about someone named “Biku.” Initially puzzled, Vasundhara realized — stunned — that “Biku” was how her grandmother addressed Monk. How did Celia know? Vasundhara had approached the Cherians seeking help for Monk’s anxiety, which was making the dog compulsively aggressive. Now, a year after her consultation with the animal communicators, Vasundhara claims that Monk is much calmer.

I constantly have a waiting list.

Priya Saklani, remote pet healer

Science scoffs at the Cherians’ practice. But when animals go missing or are ill, an increasing number of pet owners in India are turning to psychics spread across the country and beyond. Until earlier this year, the Cherians received on average one request per month; at times they now get two per week. Delhi psychic Madhu Kotiya has seen a similar increase in demand. So has Barbara Echtler, a popular German psychic who says many more Indians approach her by email now than a few months back. And in Mumbai, Priya Saklani, a remote pet healer – who says she seeks the animal’s consent before working with it – says she now conducts seven sessions per day, double her workload from three years ago. “I constantly have a waiting list,” says Priya, who also performs distance reiki.

The proliferation in demand for animal communicators is part of a larger shift in economic clout — and reveals a widening prosperity gap. Even though India is among the world’s fastest-growing major economies, its per capita income hovers around $4.50 per day. And yet the relatively affluent middle class coddles an estimated 15 million pets, making the country the world’s fastest-growing pet-care market, according to research firm Euromonitor. And psychics in India are getting in on the action, charging from $40 to $60 per session, though some also offer free services to those who can’t afford the fee. Echtler charges more than $70 per session, which typically lasts an hour.

But no other part of the pet-care industry tests the limits of science — or divides the broader community of animal caregivers — the way psychics do. “There is absolutely no scientific basis [to claims of psychics],” says R.S. Sharma, president of the Indian Veterinary Association. “They’re exploiting people’s love for their pets.”

The criticism doesn’t affect animal communicators. Tarun Cherian says convincing the world about their methods isn’t important — helping those who come to them is. But the absence of scientific evidence to back claims of being able to communicate with pets at a distance means pet owners who consult psychics or distance healers also often face uncomfortable questions. When Pooja Guha, who works as a culture analyst, approached Priya in Mumbai for help with her 18-month-old rough collie Buddy, a neurological patient, and the treatment didn’t appear to be working, “there were fingers pointed” at her by family and friends, Guha recalls. But Buddy got better after Priya worked on Buddy and asked Guha to overhaul the dog’s diet. Cooked meat was out; only raw meat was allowed, with a topping of organic coconut oil.

Many reach out to psychics and remote healers in desperation after veterinarians (if the pet is unwell) or cops (if the animal is missing) have given up. Take Mumbai-based writer Jaibal Naduvath, for instance. His cat Mao — Naduvath got him in China — was listless and vomited regularly. The vets diagnosed an incurable kidney disease and didn’t give the tabby long to live. So Naduvath turned to Priya. “I was a skeptic at first,” he recalls. But after performing distance reiki on Mao, Priya managed to revitalize the animal’s health. Now, a year after he approached the remote healer who needs only th animal’s photograph, the 9-year-old cat has a healthy appetite and is playful again. “I don’t know her magic, but Mao’s energy levels are high,” says Naduvath.

Others turn to psychics to avoid allopathic treatments for their pets, especially if the ailment requires heavy medication. Guha says she feared doctors would “pump Buddy with medicines endlessly.” Vasundhara says she was convinced her dog Monk was suffering the effects of early trauma endured as a stray on the mean streets of Delhi, where she had found him. Doctors had recommended psychiatric medication, but that, she feared, would rob him of his personality and dumb him down. One doctor even suggested putting Monk to sleep. “I refused to treat him like he was mentally sick,” says Vasundhara.

It is personal experiences that many psychics say have led them to conclude they can communicate with animals. Sitting around a circular table in their house in a leafy neighborhood of northeast Bangalore, the Cherians explain how Tarun first communicated with a bird more than 25 years ago. Then, on a coastal trip, the couple say, they spoke with a dolphin. But they claim interactions with Buffy, their now-deceased dog, were what convinced them.

That more and more Indians are queuing up to seek help from psychics points to a growing sensitization about the emotions of pets, says Celia, as Indian society opens up to discussions on mental illness more broadly. And for those who approach psychics, the experience can be as life-changing as it is for their pets. Notes Vasundhara, “This has been simply the most extraordinary period of my life.”

(An earlier version of this article described Priya Saklani as a pet communicator. She prefers to describe herself as a remote pet healer, and goes by her first name.)

Text and reporting by Charu Sudan Kasturi; video By Rohan Ferreira.

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