TAIPEI, Taiwan – Seated outside a cafe, Yoyo Hsu prepares to commune with the dead. She dons ear buds, closes her eyes and imagines traveling in an elevator down from her brain to a space deep inside where she can reach those who have left this world.
Her target today? Chief, a scrappy black-and-white rescue dog who died 10 days earlier, whose grieving owners have unresolved business. Viewing photos of Chief on her laptop, the 28-year-old asks him questions that his owners have sent, typing up their silent dialogue in a Google Doc.
How does he like where he is? (“It’s hard to describe, but nice.”) Could he come back in his next life as their pet? (“If the timing works, I will think about it!”) Hsu tells Chief his family is sorry they didn’t notice earlier that he was sick. (“You shouldn’t blame yourself.”)
Taiwan is home to one of the world’s most active communities of pet psychics – or animal communicators, as Hsu and her colleagues prefer to call themselves. The cottage industry is fueled by residents’ growing devotion to their animals – increasingly a replacement for children – and desire for companionship during the pandemic.
Every few months, the Taiwan Animal Communication Center graduates a new class of students, keeping a roster of more than 80 certified professionals for hire. Hundreds like Hsu have been trained by other teachers at home or overseas, including the United States and Britain, where the idea of pet telepathy emerged earlier but has not been as popular as in Taiwan. It takes months to get an appointment with the most popular communicators.
“There are more communicators per capita in Taiwan than anywhere else I’ve seen,” said Lauren McCall, a British American animal communicator who has run workshops for students in Taiwan for seven years.
Over the past decade, Taiwan has seen a steady rise in pet ownership; the number of registered dogs and cats peaked at 2.5 million in 2017, almost double what it was in 2005. In 2019, Taiwan reported 2.3 million dogs and cats, rates that surpassed the number of children under age 15 in at least five counties, according to the Council of Agriculture.
In Taipei, it is not uncommon to see dogs carted around in strollers or businesses advertising pet services like massages or swim classes and yoga for dogs. Residents can arrange funerals for departed animals complete with monks chanting last rites and a ceremony for burning joss paper so their spirits will live well in the afterlife.
Pets are part of political life. President Tsai Ing-wen’s two cats and three dogs, who featured in her reelection campaign last year, are still part of public relations efforts; one of Tsai’s former campaign managers was an animal communicator. Local politicians frequently signal support for animal-related initiatives like new dog parks and animal rights legislation.
While pet ownership has increased, enthusiasm for having children has waned, the result of rising living expenses, stagnant wages and life in densely packed cities. Taiwan’s population shrank in 2020 for the first time on record.
“People want company, but they don’t necessarily want to raise a child,” said Ariel Hu, a communicator also known as Bu Ma, who teaches courses on how to talk to animals. “The cost of owning a pet is a lot less than raising a child.”
That may be changing as residents increasingly see their pets as family members. Pet care sales jumped more than 40 percent between 2016 and 2020, to more than $1.2 billion a year, according to Euromonitor, a market research provider.
As people indulge their animal friends, they are turning to communicators whose services range from finding lost pets to divining the relationship between owner and pet in a past life. Communicators like Hu and Hsu say they have talked with all manner of beings, from dogs and cats to hedgehogs, birds, turtles, dolphins, insects and plants.
Albert Wu, 43, the owner of a hair salon in Kaohsiung, hired communicator Jasmine Shiau to speak to his 3-year-old Westie, Bao’er, or “baby boy.” As Bao’er sits in Shiau’s lap, Wu asks whether he likes steak and if he enjoyed their last trip to Kenting, a beach destination. The answer to both questions is yes.
“I don’t have kids, so I consider Bao’er my son,” said Wu, who believes Shiau was accurate in her reading. Shiau told him that Bao’er pees in Wu and his partner’s bed because they turn in too late. “It’s true. He glares at me while I stay up watching TV,” Wu said.
Others have more serious questions near the end of a pet’s life. Poyin Chen, 28, a graphic designer in Taipei, did a session last year for her sick hedgehog, Dimple. The communicator told her Dimple’s preferred way of being held (snuggled on top of Chen’s stomach) and her favorite food (apples).
“I understood better how she feels, so we just accompanied her until she died,” she said.
Those in the industry attribute its popularity to factors from Taiwan’s dominant religions of Daoism and Buddhism and related beliefs in reincarnation and spirits, to a growing acceptance of alternative health practices like reiki and hypnosis. Others refer to ancient Chinese folklore figures like Gongye Chang of the Zhou dynasty who, according to legend, could talk to birds.
But experts say the more plausible explanation is that this is an urban, middle-class phenomenon caused by a growing sense of isolation.
“Our ability to communicate with other people is declining,” said Huang Tsung-chieh, an associate professor at National Dong Hwa University, who studies urbanism and the role of animals in literature, adding that the trend was exacerbated by the pandemic as more people stayed at home.
Shiau said that during the pandemic, several owners, stuck overseas, have needed her services to explain their extended absences to their pets. In one case, a client asked Shiau to tell her dog, suffering from a serious urinary tract infection, not to wait for their owner. The dog died soon after.
At a workshop in Kaohsiung taught by Hu, a dozen students sit in a circle on the floor, gazing at photos of their classmates’ pets as they try to summon a connection. Answers to questions are supposed to come in the form of images, a voice or a feeling, physical or emotional.
“How do I know that what I’m seeing isn’t just from my own head?” asks Jason Yang, 21, one of the students. Hu tells him to have confidence that what he is seeing is right.
Animal advocates say that whether humans are able to telepathically connect with their pets is less important than what the industry signals – that animals and their feelings are worth considering, a belief activists hope will translate to better treatment of animals in the food supply chain, in zoos and in the wild.
Still, for those who have lost pets, talking can only help so much. Yu Hua Chen, 30, Chief’s owner, said she sought out Hsu so she could apologize for not doing better by him.
“I wouldn’t say I feel relieved, but at least I know he doesn’t blame me,” she said. She and her partner keep photos of Chief, his teeth and ashes in the top drawer of a dresser in their living room. “To be honest, I still haven’t let go,” she said.