- Walter Novak
- Wilburrrrrrr has left the building.
If she had "Resident Weirdo" tattooed across her forehead, animal psychic Doris Straka might make it past security, no problem. But she doesn't, so the new guard at Northfield Park racetrack stops her.
Straka gives her name. The guard raises an eyebrow. "Go on through."
When you're the "spook," explains Straka, just a name will do. No laminated ID or secret password required.
"If you've done something strange, they seem to know about it," she says of the track people. "But it's not something they talk about."
Straka, who once communicated with the disconsolate spirit of a goat killed by satanists, freaks out a lot of people. But that's not what she gets paid $75 a visit for. Today, she's here to talk with a maple-brown stallion. His name is Shark's Shore, and lately he's been limping toward the finish line, dead last, like an escapee from the hip replacement ward.
Last week, Shark got the shakes so bad, owner/jockey Tim Crissman pulled him from the race.
"To be honest with you, I thought he was gonna die," says a worried Crissman, scratching Shark's middle. Horses don't throw up, but "if he was a human, I'd have said he was gonna throw up. I was ready to throw up -- I thought I was gonna lose $9,000."
Crissman's first call was to Straka, who said she'd come take a look. An animal communicator from Kirtland, Straka, 57, says she's been talking to animals ever since she was two, when a snapping turtle "the size of a luncheon plate" told her don't worry, he wouldn't bite her toes.
Years later, when word of these combination verbal-visual messages leaked, strangers starting calling with questions about their perturbed poodles or nihilistic housecats. About five years ago, Straka began charging a flat fee -- though she's still willing to talk for free to the dead dog of the distraught neighbor who pulls in her driveway, unannounced, with a freshly baked pie in hand.
The visits to racehorses began with Ideal Nuke, a horse belonging to Catherine Matich, who races at Painesville Township Park. Matich introduced Straka to colleagues at Northfield, who were impressed when a large mare told Straka the name of her home state.
"When I said hi to her, she would not remember her name, but she goes, "I'm from Indiana!'" Straka recalls. "I couldn't understand why it was important. But I turned around, and I looked at the people, and I said, "She says she's from Indiana.' And they looked at me with their eyes as big as saucers and said she was trailered here yesterday from Indiana. That day I saw 38 horses, and I was scheduled to see three."
Most owners ultimately wrote it off as a novelty. But along with the poodles and housecats, Straka made about $6,000 last year from visits to racetrack clients, including Matich, Crissman, Northfield horse owner Renee Kresty, and a few others. Not enough to live on, but enough to buy a lot of bales of hay for the horses she and her husband, Ted, keep on their 20-acre farm.
Shark, Crissman's stallion, has a gentle nature, so Straka can practically whisper in his ear.
"Hi, you don't have to look so crabby," she coos, petting his muzzle. "No, no nibbles. What is it? Your leg? I think we could fix that. Mmm hmm. What did you do to hurt it? You did? Aw -- I'll tell Tim, and he'll fix that."
Translation: A pressured nerve in his lower back.
"The hind right leg hurts here and here, and the tailbone feels like it's been strained, and that's causing the hip some kind of spasm," Straka tells Crissman.
To treat him, they braid his tail with rope and tie one end to a wooden post. It might sound like punishment, but it's more like a do-it-yourself chiropractor, says Crissman. The horse steps forward, pulling on the rope. The resulting resistance stretches the spine, and the horse adjusts its stance to relieve pressure on the strained nerve.
A small-time owner who inherited the stable from his steelworker dad, Crissman repeats the rope trick regularly for a few weeks. Indeed, the next race Shark competes in, he wins. Crissman can't say for sure it's the therapy, but he's not about to scrutinize good fortune.
"By the end of this many years, I know there's a lot of "let's trys,'" he says. "And I don't want to waste time and money on something I haven't had results on yet." He says he can't afford a vet's educated guesswork if the guess is wrong and the vet has to make repeated visits.
When Doris came to the park for the first time, Crissman was skeptical but desperate, his stable already reduced from 12 to a handful.
"I had a problem horse and didn't know what to do," he says. "Nothing else seemed to be working. But I had tried everything else, so I figured I might as well try her.
"She told me that what was wrong was in his neck. Then I called the chiropractor. I didn't tell him what Doris had said, but he found the same thing. It made me believe she knew what she was doing."
David Miller, an Akron veterinarian who specializes in equine acupuncture, has worked in harmony with Straka, whose "interpretations" jibed with his.
"I believe that there's a certain ability that some people have to connect with animals that others don't," he says. "I don't think it can be learned.
"She has a special talent to connect with animals by thinking. Would I have found [the problem] without her? I don't know. Did it help me have an enlightening experience? Yes."
The animal world was Straka's refuge when she was growing up in rural Florida and Ohio. Home was hell for her and her two brothers (who have latent psychic gifts, she says). When she was five, her parents beat her so badly that they were locked up.
"The police knew our household well," she says. "But hey, I look at it this way. When you're a child, you're in your environment, and you either survive, or you blossom in it. And then you go, "Wow, now it's my turn to see what I can do with me.'
"The animals saved my life. They gave me a real reason for living and a closeness that the humans I was with didn't have -- the ability to love like that."
At age 14, with a friend's encouragement, she volunteered at Euclid Veterinary Hospital, under the tutelage of veterinarian Daniel Stearns. No sooner had she started than she found herself on the phone with a hysterical schnauzer. The dog had bitten Stearns, and 14 stitches later, he was calling her at school, asking her to mollify Bowser. He had heard she had a rapport with him.
"I answer the phone and he goes, "Doris, will you talk to this dog? We can't get near him -- he's ballistic,'" she recalls. "Dr. Stearns is my mentor. He's the first person who told me what I did was different."
Despite his influence, the 79-year-old Stearns has scant memory of Straka, and only as a "good horse person." He doesn't remember the schnauzer quandary or telling her she had a gift for communicating with animals. Still working at the same clinic, he's mentored numerous kids over the years, he says, ushering many of them into veterinary school. As for animal psychics, that's a bunch of bunk.
"If somebody could talk to an animal and tell what's wrong with them, they'd be a millionaire in a hurry," he says. "Sometimes an animal will tell you with body language that he's sick. But it's a hard thing to say.
"I've been in the business 50 years, and if I ran into one of these people, I would say, if they were serious about it, why haven't they been to veterinary school, so they could learn how to properly use their talent?"
He softens. "But if somebody says they have a God-given talent, you can't say that God didn't give it to them. It's like witching a well -- a fella takes a stick and can tell you where a well is. He's done it on my farm three times and found water, and I've done it three times and nothing happened."
Straka likes to think of herself as a vet's best friend, calling in the doc when a horse needs medical attention. Some vets are supportive, others mildly annoyed. Kirtland vet Joel Percival regards Straka as a great comforter, if not a communicator. One "real grouch" shoved her when she tried to consult with him.
Aspiring farmers in the local 4-H chapter that she advised for 20 years didn't mind that she counseled the pigs as she slopped them. Louise Yager, Straka's 4-H supervisor, calls Straka an exceptional 4-H leader.
"She really knew what the kids needed and when they needed it," says Yager. "She was there for them. She was called an advisor, but there's some advisors that are there, and then there's some advisors that are there for the kids."
Whole families looked forward to Straka's special 4-H nights on Saturdays, in which she would tell Native American folktales around the campfire or have everybody close their eyes and try to read nonvisual messages from the livestock. Her telepathic abilities also made her an especially tuned-in small animal judge at the county fair, Yager adds.
"One rabbit would be sad, and the rabbit would say, "My owner doesn't clean my cage at all,'" Yager says. "And then Doris would say to the kid, "Well, your rabbit would be much happier if you cleaned its cage once in a while,' and the kid would say, "How did you know?'"
Straka, who has two grown daughters, says she made a point of befriending the dogs that snitched on their teenage owners. "I had one young lady hiding liquor in her horse's stall, and when I asked her about it, she confessed.
"I had a goat, whose club I wasn't in, tell me that his owner was smoking and burying the cigarette butts in the barn. I said [to the boy], "May I talk to you?' We had a little talk about how concerned his goat was that there was going to be a fire, and the barn would burn down. "If you're sneaking to do it, you're not supposed to be doing it' is what the goat said."
Thanks to the goat's intervention, the boy quit smoking, says Yager, who never received a single complaint about Straka. The goat could not be reached for comment.