Mother Nature’s Early Warning System

Our latest column from William Thomas

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that struck South and Southeast Asia on Boxing Day, 2004 is still one of nature’s most vicious attacks on the planet. In the catastrophic aftermath, one particular story had readers doing a double take. While the death toll of people along the coast of the 11 countries that were hit topped 160,000, not one dead animal was found.

Sri Lanka wildlife officials reported that while 24,000 citizens were killed among their island nation’s shoreline, every animal in Yala National Park, their largest wildlife reserve, survived. The ferocious walls of water that slammed southeastern Sri Lanka flooded up to two miles of the park, but its four-legged inhabitants, including hundreds of wild elephants, watched the unprecedented destruction from higher ground.

And they did not run to their safe havens just ahead of the surging ocean. Instead, they had calmly and symmetrically moved there hours before the tsunami was sighted by humans.

“No elephants are dead, not even a dead hare or rabbit,” said H.D. Ranayake, deputy director of Sri Lanka’s wildlife department. “I think animals can sense disaster. They have a sixth sense. They know when things are happening.”

Indeed, the annals of natural disasters are rife with reports of wildlife sensing impending peril well before it occurs. Birds, in particular, are often the first to vacate an area of imminent danger. The ancient Romans placed a high value on owls, who they believed were useful omens of oncoming natural calamity.

Greek records show that in 373 B.C., all of the animals – including weasels, rats and snakes – deserted the city of Hellce days before a earthquake destroyed it.

After a devastating earthquake hit Taiwan in 1999, rangers at Yashau National Park reported all of the mountain-dwelling animals, from bears to birds, had gone missing. After no carcasses were found,the rangers discovered the animals – led by Formosan black bears – had fled to the east to safer ground. Deer, wild goats and even butterflies had managed to escape the harm that befell humans.

Today, the Chinese government urges citizens to report strange behaviour by animals, such as rats fleeing their natural habitats, as a way of warning against possible earthquakes. And in California, one geologist even monitors the ‘lost pet’ announcements in newspapers, believing significant increases in these ads indicate an earthquake is on its way.

While there are also many stories of chickens that stop laying eggs, bees swarming out of their hives and pet cats and dogs behaving very oddly, all of the evidence is unfortunately only anecdotal. Scientists cannot conduct conclusive experiments because, obviously they cannot predict the natural disasters that may or may not spook the animals. At best, they think animals might be able to sense disaster.

Well, I don’t think, I know so. In the late 1970s, I lived in a small mountainside villa above the town of Mijas, near Malaga, in southern Spain. I adopted two stray orange-striped cats, a brother-and-sister team. Once they wrangled their way into the house, they completely took it over and in the absence of a television set, they provided unlimited entertainment. Playing hide-and-seek and lurk-and-lunge, a feline comedy team was born. They played hockey in the bathtub for hours with a ball of tinfoil for a puck.

Poorly treated by locals and having lived mostly in sheds, they glommed onto the luxury of the villa like long lost royalty. Most days, I had to push them out the door to do their business. On damp days, they would lay on the hearth of the fireplace until they were too hot to pick up and move.

One day, at about noon, they just went nuts. They circled the big living room in different directions, leaping and bouncing off all four walls as they ran. They made strange, guttural noises as they continued to romp around. I thought they were just working on a new routine, so I snapped open a cold San Miguel and sat in the middle of the room to watch them. This went on for a very strange 10 minutes until they exhausted themselves and staggered upstairs to hide under the bed. I could not get them to go outside.

Later that night, in Paco’s Alarcon Bar, all of the local talk was about the earthquake that had hit nearby Grenada late that afternoon. While I stood laughing, they prepared for their survival.

There is no doubt in my mind that animals, perhaps some more than others, are wired with a sixth sense, the delicate frequency of which is lost on human beings. Although we have not yet fully taken advantage of it, when it comes to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, these animals can serve the same purpose as the canary in a coal mine that has saved many a miner from death by toxic gas.

Maybe an area vulnerable to natural disaster does not need a multi-million dollar seismic warning system. Maybe it already has one that’s furry or has wings.

For comments, ideas and copies of The Legend of Zippy Chippy, go to



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