Sunday Lunch With... A Pet Psychic

by Debra Pickett

Denise Zak does not want to be called a pet psychic. She’d prefer to be described as an animal intuitive, thank you very much. Because, you know, she can’t really read your pet’s thoughts. I mean, come on, that’s just silly. Zak merely tells you what they are feeling, which if you think about it for a minute – but not any longer – makes much more sense.

“Please don’t think I’m a weirdo,” she says as she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before attempting to tap into the inner life of Butkus the bulldog. “I just need to shut out the distractions.”

Butkus isn’t here, but her owner, Sun-Times photographer Jean Lachat, is. And when Lachat offers up a photo, Zak jumps at the chance to show off her animal intuitiveness. It doesn’t start well. She refers to Butkus as a “he.”

After asking a few more questions, and finding out the dog is a girl, Zak gets into her intuitive groove. It turns out Butkus, who everyone thought was, well, a pretty dumb dog, has a very rich emotional life.

“There’s something sad here,” Zak says, having noticed the two small children also featured in the picture Lachat has shown her and finding out that Lachat owned the dog before she had the kids. “When you just had Butkus, she was like your baby. Now she’s had a lot taken away from her. She hears a lot of “Not now, Butkus.’ And she is getting older. But she’s happy for the time she had you to herself. You’re the one who’s having a hard time dealing with it. She’s fine.”

By now, both Zak and Lachat are in tears. And I’m wondering if Butkus would be interested in co-authoring Chicken Soup for Your Dog’s Soul.

We’re all having lunch at Ben Pao, which is what passes for a Chinese restaurant in the upscale River North neighborhood that is also home to Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society. We’re going to head over there later, to visit with the dogs, though Zak doesn’t promise she’ll be able to be able to “read” them because they probably have some trust issues. It seems like it should be pretty easy to figure out what the animals at the shelter are feeling – something along the lines of “I want to get out of here” – so I can’t decide whether this is a lame cop-out by Zak or an indication of her absolute sincerity.

Beautiful, bubbly and so nervous she can’t stop talking, Zak, who lives in West Dundee, is just learning how to turn her, um, gift into a profession. She’s recently hired a publicist and has been making the rounds on all the talk shows and morning news programs. This, she says charmingly, is her first big newspaper interview.

As we munch on stir-fried vegetables and sip ginger ales, Zak admits she is not a vegetarian but says she’d love to be one. She’s ordered the green beans today mainly because her publicist told her she shouldn’t eat meat while she talks about being in tune with animals’ feelings.

Zak, who is 46 but looks and sounds much younger, has been “reading” animals since 1991. That year, she lost her job as a cosmetics industry executive and decided to de-stress by returning to a childhood love of horses. She bought two – Steele Equus and My Monet. Spending time out at the stables with them, Zak seemed to have a knack for knowing exactly what her horses wanted. And when another rider asked her to take a look at a horse with a persistent limp, she instantly knew what the problem was. “I knew his shoulder hurt,” she says, “because my shoulder hurt when I was standing with him.”

She says it’s kind of like when the answer to a question – the one someone asked you two days ago that you were sure you knew the answer to, but you just couldn’t think of – pops into your head in the middle of the night or when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic. All of a sudden, you just know. And you don’t know why you didn’t know before or what made you think of it just now.

That’s exactly how it is for Zak with your pet. Except she doesn’t have to wait a couple days for things to come to her. And it’s a pet. So there’s generally no real way to tell if she’s right.

Still, once the suburban animal lovers heard about Zak’s diagnosis of the horse – which had previously stumped numerous vets and trainers – they flocked to her to ask about their animals. And, once she figured out she could charge them $100 an hour for the service, she decided to make a business out of it. Now she even has her own Web site,

Zak says the two questions she gets asked most of the time are “Does my pet love me?” and “How does my pet feel when I’m gone?” The more I talk to Zak, the more I realize her work has much more to do with people than animals.

She swears she’s never gotten the sense that an animal deeply disliked its owner, but she also admits that she sometimes avoids telling people things they don’t necessarily want to hear. “When I get really, really negative energy, I just say, ‘I’m not getting a lot,’” she says. It’s easier than telling someone their parakeet has a death wish.

Zak works with all sorts of animals and has come to some conclusions about the subconscious minds of various species. “Cats,” she says “are more confident. Dogs are less secure. They come up to you and say, ‘Like me, like me.’”

And among the horses who were some of her earliest and most loyal clients, “Race horses are the most worldly, draft horses are really profound and Quarter Horses are just like good old boys.”

For the most part, Zak says the animals’ feelings don’t come to her in distinctive voices. If she hears words, she generally hears them in her own voice. There’s been one exception though: and old dog, whose words came to her in a big Alec Guinness voice. “Tell her I want to LIVE until I die,” the dog said in a message to her owner, “Every time she looks at me with that sadness and pity, I’m aware that I’m dying.” “It was a lesson to me,” Zak says, completely earnestly.

As we head out of the restaurant and around the corner to the animal shelter, Zak reminds me of our earlier conversation. She won’t read an animal without its owner’s permission and, anyway, he doubts she’ll be able to connect with any of the anxious, skittish dogs biding their time at the shelter.

We stand around for a while as Maddie, a beautiful but aloof German shepherd mix, gives Zak the cold shoulder. There aren’t going to be any deep revelations here. Still, I think I hear Alec Guinness somewhere behind me. He’s laughing.

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© 2002 Denise Zak. All rights reserved. Reproduction of any text or photograph is unlawful and will be prosecuted.