Why are we so obsessed with oracle animals who predict sports results? And what’s really going on behind the scenes? Elena Cresci investigates.
There are a few certainties during World Cup season – aside from, you know, the football.
At some point, you will begin rooting for a team you have absolutely no connection to. Whether you support England or not, if you’re in the UK you’ll get ‘Three Lions’ stuck in your head for weeks. And finally, somewhere in the world there will be an animal oracle predicting the results of each and every game.
This year’s favourite is a white cat by the name of Achilles, who lives at St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum. Achilles is deaf, which museum staff say adds to his psychic abilities – and also handily means he is nonplussed by the incessant clicking of cameras.
“We considered, and it turned out to be right, that when you lack something it is compensated by something else,” Maria Haltunen, press secretary of Hermitage Cats, told the Associated Press. “That’s why he’s a very good oracle.”
Prior to the Argentina vs Nigeria group match where Achilles predicted a Nigerian win, the furry soothsayer had a 100 per cent record with the matches he’s predicted in the World Cup by choosing a bowl of food (the standard technique used by modern animal psychics).
But Achilles isn’t alone. In 2018 we’ve hit peak psychic animal, with zoos scrambling to get a piece of the action (and some free publicity). In Russia alone, there’s a tapir in Limpopo zoo, a lemur in Yekaterinburg, a goat in Samara and an otter in Sochi, all with varying success rates. Most controversially, a muzzled bear was shown on Russian state TV predicting matches while dressed in football kit.
Outside of Russia, there’s Nelly the elephant of Serengeti Park zoo in Hodenhagen, Germany, who had a 90 per cent record while predicting the Women’s World Cup, though she didn’t see Mexico’s recent triumph over Germany coming. Here in the UK, Mystic Marcus the magical micropig has made the media rounds, appearing on This Morning and in pretty much every British newspaper.
His owner told Phillip Schofield the pig was “the seventh child of the seventh child” before he successfully predicted England’s win. We’ll have to wait and see if his semi-final predictions – Argentina, Belgium, Nigeria and Uruguay – end up correct.
But just why are we so obsessed with making animals predict the outcome of sporting events? And what’s really going on behind the scenes?
For starters, the World Cup is usually held during what journalists have dubbed “silly season”: a time when stories are thin on the ground and everyone is on holiday and wanting something lighthearted to read. In much the same way as everyone is trying to get a slice of Love Island, each media outlet is also trying to maximise their World Cup clicks, and the common wisdom is animals = viral gold.
But to really understand how we got here, we need to go back to 2010 and take a look at the ultimate animal oracle: Paul the Octopus.
No psychic animal has induced a media storm quite like Paul – to the point that staff at Sea Life Oberhausen, where he lived, are reluctant to grant any press requests, in case it starts up again.
“If it was not the press, it was individuals or businesses wanting to exploit Paul’s seemingly psychic powers,” says a source familiar with the situation who wishes to remain anonymous. They say things were extremely stressful at the peak of Paul’s popularity. There were “substantial” and “eyewatering” offers to buy Paul, but all were turned down. On top of this, there were death threats – namely, people promising to turn Paul into calamari when he didn’t predict a result they were happy with.
The whole thing had started as a bit of fun. Paul was one of eight octopuses tasked with predicting match outcomes, and about half of them picked hosts Germany as the winner of the opening match. The second German match in the group stages was against Serbia, a match most pundits expected Germany to win, as did most of Sea Life’s octopuses.
But not Paul. He was the only one to correctly predict a Serbian win. And thus began his rise to stardom. Game after game, the circle of press outside his tank grew and grew, until the area was crammed with reporters from all over the world.
How Paul predicted so many matches correctly is mostly attributed to luck. But say Paul did have a flair for divination – what about some of the other successful psychic animals? Are they getting lucky or is something else at play?
The year after Paul the Octopus made his now world-famous predictions, the Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand. During the tournament an heir apparent to Paul rose through the headlines – Sonny Wool, a psychic sheep from Manakau near Levin.
Sonny predicted seven out of ten matches correctly while wearing a custom-made New Zealand rugby shirt. Named after All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams, he became a media darling. At the time, his agent Dan Boyd told the press Sonny had correctly predicted the weather in the past.
When I caught up with him, the story was a little different.
“At the time, I was a marketing manager for a radio station,” he said. “And our station wasn’t an official sponsor of the Rugby World Cup. This was the biggest event in New Zealand at the time, so I wanted to create a way that I could be involved.
Vaguely remembering the fuss around Paul the Octopus, Dan had a plan. New Zealand is famed for being both rugby-mad and having many, many sheep, so: “What about a sheep that predicts the results?”
He went to his boss with the idea. “He just laughed at me,” Dan says. “I said: ‘No, I’m determined, I’m going to make this sheep world-famous.’ Everyone else in the office laughed as well – I think they gave me more determination than anything else.”
So Dan went out and found a sheep at a petting zoo two hours away from the city, convinced them to let him rechristen one of their sheep after a famous All Blacks player and set up the prediction.
“We rolled him out before the first New Zealand game, put a couple of flags on some sticks and got him to pick the right result.”
All the matches Sonny correctly predicted were New Zealand games, and they won each one, as was widely expected of them while hosting the tournament. So how did Dan make sure Sonny picked New Zealand every time?
“I think most of these things are a bit of a ‘have’,” he says, using New Zealand slang for a pisstake or a prank.
Dan explains that they basically made sure Sonny Wool’s owner was near the desired flag while the predictions were going on. “She didn’t have to hold the food, but so long as she was nearby, it would be fine.”
And the plan mostly worked – though it almost fell apart when Sonny’s namesake turned up for a photo op. “All of a sudden we’ve got one of the biggest superstars in rugby holding a bucket for a sheep wearing an All Blacks t-shirt.
“I was praying he would go to Sonny Bill – and that day, I got lucky.”
As far as we know, other animal oracles haven’t used similar techniques (we don’t want to get sued by a micropig). Of course, there were conspiracy theories aplenty around Paul the Octopus, but all of them were denied by the aquarium. As for Sonny Wool, Dan says no one seemed to really question it.
“Everyone wants to believe the unbelievable,” he said. “And sometimes we might know inside that it’s all baloney and fake but it’s like kids and Father Christmas.
“We probably knew at some point it wasn’t real but we wanted to believe in a little bit of magic.
“Whatever makes us happy, we’re quite happy to believe it.”
As far as Dan’s concerned, Sonny Wool really did make people happy: children from urban areas who’d never seen farm animals would come to visit, while Sonny also visited an old people’s home.
“Going out intending to do it for a bit of publicity turned into, actually, bringing quite a lot of smiles to a lot of faces.”
Sonny is now in his twilight years, still getting visits from people eager to meet the psychic sheep. And if his and Paul’s popularity is anything to go by, Achilles the cat has a lot to look forward to if he continues his winning streak.