BOOKS: Spoken in Whispers

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1999:

Spoken in Whispers:
The Autobiography of a
Horse Whisperer
by Nicci Mackay
Fireside Books (c/o Simon & Schuster,
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New
York, NY 10020), 1998.
190 pages. Paperback, $11.00.

After the success of Nicholas
Evans’ The Horse Whisperer, followed by
Robert Redford’s spin on this best-selling
novel, it’s no surprise that others have
jumped on the bandwagon. Use of the term
“whisperer” virtually guarantees a best-seller––as
Monty Roberts recognized in quickly
adding a gold seal to the cover of his book,
The Man Who Listens to Horses, proclaiming
himself “A Real Horse Whisperer.”

Not to be left out, former British
jockey Nicci Mackay offers a personal tale
of her Dr. Doolittle encounters with a wide
range of animals in Spoken in Whispers: The
Autobiography of a Horse Whisperer.
Yet Mackay is not really a “horse
whisperer” at all. She belongs to another
popular group: animal communicators. Her
“clients” include a collie who suffered a
stroke, but retained his desire to herd sheep;
an African grey parrot who was adversely
affected by too much television; and a badboy
stallion whom no one understood.
It’s cute stuff, but begs the question
as to whether animal communicators’
methods can withstand scientific investigation.
This is not to suggest that science is
the only path to the truth. Astutely observing
lay persons may witness extraordinary
interactions between human and non-human
animals, especially among horse trainers,
whose spoken words are extraneous: the
communication is all in the body language.
However, Mackay’s “work” with
animals seems grounded in nothing more
than the warm, fuzzy feelings she gives to
despairing people who have reached the ends
of their ropes with companion animals.
Animal behaviorists, many of
whom are veterinarians, would advise that
common sense and sympathetic understanding
of the needs of different species can prevent
most neurotic symptoms. Aristotle the
recalcitrant stallion didn’t need Mackay; he
needed to be with other horses, and needed
an owner who recognized the nature of
equines. The African grey didn’t need
Mackay, either; he needed an outdoor
aviary, instead of a cage near a television.
Better yet, he needed to go home to Africa.
There are as many skeptics as
there are believers in animal communicators.
If you’re thinking of hiring one to figure out
what’s wrong with Fido, do yourself a favor
and play devil’s advocate. Ask her if she’s a
vegetarian. Many are n o t. No doubt the
animals they like to eat are not among their
clients. And here is where they might be on
shaky ground. Mackay neither confirms or
denies being a vegetarian: she simply does
not address the subject. However, she and
her husband own a small sheep farm, and
the sheep are not kept as lawn ornaments.
Despite being a silly book, Spoken
in Whispers is selling well. And as long as
“whispering” continues to be a popular vehicle
for wannabes, there will be more following
Mackay’s example.
––Robin Duxbury
[Duxbury heads Project Equus,
POB 6989, Denver, CO 80206;

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