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The Story of Lady Wonder, the Psychic Horse

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In the early 1920s, a Richmond, Virginia woman named Claudia Fonda started noticing something unusual about her horse, Lady Wonder. The animal would often come to her without being beckoned, as if she knew, telepathically, that Fonda was looking for her.

Believing that she had an exceptional animal in her care, Fonda started to train Lady to move lettered and numbered children's blocks with her nose, eventually even designing a piano-sized contraption with a double row of keys. A touch of her snout on a lever would cause a tin card with a letter or number to pop up, and through that system, Lady was purportedly able to solve math problems and spell words. It was the gateway to a phenomenon, because Lady was not merely smart, she was also supposedly psychic.

An estimated 150,000 people would eventually seek counsel from Lady Wonder, each paying $1 to ask three questions. Her achievements reportedly included telling married women their maiden names, guessing the sex of unborn children, predicting oncoming tractors, knowing the date on a coin hidden from view, discovering oil, and calling elections, horse races, ball games, and boxing matches—most famously, Gene Tunney’s defeat of Jack Dempsey in 1927 for the world heavyweight championship.

After hearing about the boxing prediction, researchers from Duke University including Dr. J.B. Rhine visited the farm to test Lady. Rhine’s simple exam involved writing words on pieces of paper and, while still hidden, asking the horse to spell them out. Lady largely succeeded, even with longer words like "Mesopotamia" and "Carolina."

The future-telling, mind-reading mare’s best-known feat didn’t come until more than two decades later. In 1952, Lady was called upon as a sort of last-ditch effort in the search for a missing Massachusetts boy. She spelled out "Pittsfield Water Wheel” when asked for his whereabouts, and after some initial confusion (“Pittsfield Water Wheel” didn’t exist), authorities wondered if the letters were instead supposed to be Field and Wilde Water Pit—a nearby abandoned quarry. They took the search there, and found the missing boy’s body.

Lady Wonder wasn’t always correct with her answers—in fact, she was often wrong—and she garnered as many skeptics as believers. A professional horse trainer named Edward Staib checked out the horse and called the results "not conclusive.” While psychologist Thomas L. Garrett believed there was "no trickery involved,” New Jersey professor John Scarne believed Fonda was cueing the animal. Magician Milbourne Christopher agreed, determining that Lady Wonder was very well-trained, but not telepathic or clairvoyant.

Others still simply didn’t know what to make of the so-called psychic horse. A researcher named Dr. Gayle told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "I am perfectly willing to admit that I have no idea how she arrives at the correct answers to our questions. There is no conscious trickery here, I am convinced. But I am not converted to the mind-reading theory. What's the solution of the puzzle? I don't know!"

Lady Wonder died in 1957, and Fonda followed two years later. We’ll never know if the animal had otherworldly abilities, or a very keen mind and obedient tendencies, but we do know that Fonda also had a piano-playing Pomeranian named Pudgy, so you can draw your conclusions from that.

For photos of Lady Wonder click here; if you want to read a slew of archived stories from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, they do require a small fee, but you can get them here.

[h/t Strange Company]

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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