Hello (again) kitty?

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a show called "The Pet Psychic." In that episode, animal communicator Sonja Fitzpatrick, former model-turned-television pet guru, was onsite at Gatorland, "chatting" with Old Joe, a gator who'd fallen into a slump to the great concern of his seasoned wrangler, Tim Williams. Fitzpatrick, of handsome middle age (63, actually), with British correctitude and classy style, was leaning into a rustic pond "communicating" with crusty Old Joe.

"He thinks you're the bee's knees," she exclaimed to Williams in her charming way.

Wait a minute. A Florida gator using 1920s slang? Well, he is Old Joe. Still, delivered in clipped British accent it was ... weird ... but engaging.

As it turned out, Fitzpatrick did some mental chatting with Old Joe and passed along to Williams that he was upset about not getting fed the same red-meat meal he was accustomed to, in favor of chicken. Also, she shared Old Joe's concerns about the health and well-being of his buddy Williams, who admitted he was under some unusual stress in his personal life.

Another happy ending. And there have been many of them, in the course of the run of "The Pet Psychic," Animal Planet's surprise success. I watched the show a couple more times before my curiosity was killed, but according to Nielsen ratings, Animal Planet draws 66.4 million people each month to its various programming, including "Animal Cops," "Emergency Vets," "Pet Star," "The Crocodile Hunter" and "The Pet Psychic."

Both the network and Fitzpatrick's show are riding a charismatic wave of animal mania, and the cash keeps coming. In February of this year, Fitzpatrick released "The Pet Psychic: What the Animals Tell Me Book," and she has freshly authored "Cat Talk: The Secrets of Communicating With Your Cat," set to be on shelves this month. Her own line of pet food, Omega Natural, is due this fall, and she is on hiatus from the show as she makes her first "live national tour," which lands Tuesday, Oct. 28, at the Helen Stairs Theatre in Sanford. In general, she is making calls and taking names -- including mine and that of our family's recently deceased cat, Max.

Last Thursday, after office hours, I got a call from Fitzpatrick's PR person. She said they had a message from me, asking for an interview with "The Pet Psychic." I explained I hadn't called, nor had anyone from the paper, but, OK, with my skeptical editor out of town, I decided to bite, convincing myself that this was happening for a reason. I agreed to e-mail a photo of Max, so that Fitzpatrick could see it before she called me at 1:30 the next day for an interview and pet reading. Fitzpatrick asks only for the name of the pet she's channeling, so she can get their attention, and the names of other animals in the household, in case they start talking at the same time.

The arrangement was very last-minute and computer glitches kept the photo from going through. Finally, Fitzpatrick's helpers got the image and faxed it to her -- Max looking like nothing more than a gray blob. I was the last call on her list that day, which meant she was a bit tired. The animals had been particularly chatty, reported her PR person, and she had been running behind schedule as a result.

The impending interview made me a bit nervous -- mostly, I think, because it made me think of Max, a big fluffy gray guy who had passed into the spirit world after 13 years of the simple life, and my own guilts and fears about his death, and death in general.

Demonstrating her excellent people skills, Fitzpatrick was a delightful person to talk with. She's a nice lady and frequently laughs out loud. We talked about her new ventures and went over some of the familiar ground about her past, well-documented on www.sonjafitzpatrick.com. For the record, she is a vegetarian ("I can't eat my friends") and believes everyone has the right to an opinion, even nonbelievers in her abilities. She seemed genuine in her beliefs, but logic -- and her financial success -- is hard to toss aside; I was sure that by talking with her, I would know if she was the real deal or not.

Hits, misses and in between

My worst fears were realized when only minutes into our talk, she became a bit agitated and said, "Darling, he had a lot of abuse, did you know that? Someone pulled his fur. I feel my fur being pulled out. And it's, like, hurting it. Oh, my."

"He pulled it out himself," I answered.

"Oh my God, I'm feeling my fur being pulled out and it hurts me. ... I can feel like there could be a parasite under the skin. Oh God, it really hurts him, darling. He pulls it right out. It's like he's abusing himself. He pulls it right out, rips it out in chunks ... and it drives him crazy."

She told me that vets usually don't pick up on this parasitic action but that she knew a great Japanese-trained herbalist to whom I should send a sample of his hair. The abusive hair-pulling was uncannily true. Max was bug-free but ripped his hair out by the chunk.

Still, Fitzpatrick didn't realize that Max was dead; she talked about him as if he were alive, until I became so disturbed that I felt the need to flat-out tell her.

"That's all right. That's all right," she said. "He's deceased, you mean? So this is what he's telling me when he was in this world. Sometimes I can't tell whether they are here or there, because they still communicate the same way."

We talked more in great depth about how he died and her perceptions, but I felt like I was offering too many clues, too much subtle information. Later, she apologized for not tuning in on Max's status. "What happened this morning was everything came through on the fax, and my personal assistant isn't here right now. And it came through, and it was fluffied out a bit, and my dogs had a go at chewing some of my paperwork, so that's why I wouldn't have known he was in the spirit world."

Uh-oh. This wasn't a fresh spin on the old "my dog ate it" excuse, was it? I grew uncomfortable with her tender reach-outs, my emotions making reality hazy.

Before my revelation about his death, she had mentioned Max's thanks at "rescuing" him. I explained that we rescued him from our vet's office, where his mother, Alice, a street cat, was being cared for until her she had her babies.

Fitzgerald said, "I feel that there has been more than one owner in his life. He had been somewhere else. He says the people at the vet's were very good to him, and there was a lady there who was very kind. He thinks of that place as his second home."

The vet's office, The Cat Hospital of Orlando, was where we got Max, and it's officially where he died. It's run by M. Alexandra Sumerlin, DVM, known as "Sandy" to old-time customers like me. She's a remarkably compassionate woman, but a woman of science. (As a sufferer of Lyme Disease -- she was bitten in vet school in Athens, Ga. -- she has broken ground in her efforts for treatment.)

I talked to Sumerlin about my brush with The Pet Psychic and asked her how she felt about such things. Though grounded in her medical books, she said she's still "open to anything." (Curiously, one of the producers of The Pet Psychic is a client of Sumerlin's.)

I passed along Max's mention of the kind lady, but Sumerlin was more interested in talking about how he actually died. "Probably died of heart disease," she said, despite her staff's desperate efforts to revive him, ER-style, in her office, as he gasped his last breaths. Fitzpatrick had said that he died instantly at home, and when I rejected that, she thought he had inhaled some kind of outdoor poison that burned his nose and eventually worked its way into his system. I asked Sumerlin if there could have been parasites under his skin, and she said, "Not really."

Sumerlin said, "I can't explain it, but it sounds eerie." Fitzpatrick herself said, "Trust your instincts," as we closed our conversation.

I think Fitzgerald is an extremely intuitive woman, acutely in tune with animal and human behavior. I think her PR people contacted me not out of some higher, mysterious call, but because they know how to do their job. During my encounter with The Pet Psychic, she hit as many times as she missed. And while I don't feel any closer to Max himself, I do feel closer to my own feelings about Max as well as my family's.

There is no free lunch, I know, and I did pay a price for this experience by stirring up our family's grief. In the future, I think I will let sleeping dogs lie.

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