PARK, Fla. — In the cacophony of a county animal
shelter — incessant barking bouncing off bare concrete
— a woman with slow, deliberate steps and gently
sweeping arms makes her way down an aisle.
first, the dogs grow louder and more insistent. But as
the woman pauses beside each kennel, her breathing long
and deep, one by one the animals turn quiet and calm.
Their ears relax. They lie down. Some yawn.
as if Jo Maldonado, the woman walking among them, has
cast a spell.
are very sensitive to our energy," she says.
"If we are calm, they intuitively feel safe to
former public-relations executive from DeLand, Fla.,
Maldonado, 63, now serves as a translator of sorts for
the animal kingdom. While studies show 99 percent of pet
owners talk to their animals, Maldonado is one of the
few who listens to the response.
calls herself an animal communicator, a skill that is as
much art as science. She has worked with horses, dogs,
cats, leopards — even an opossum. Now she’s teaching
her skills to fellow humans.
the Wild Horse Rescue Center in Mims, Fla., at an exotic
animal sanctuary in Apopka, Fla., and at Seminole County
Animal Services (where she did the shelter walk),
Maldonado is an odd but effective presence, admirers
say. She has done sessions with everything from hogs,
horses and leopards to calicos and Chihuahuas.
clients have included a 16-year-old cat who wanted a few
more walks in the garden with his owner before he
passed, a Jack Russell terrier who didn’t like the
rain and a show horse stressed out by his owner’s
nervous energy before competitions.
may snicker, but Maldonado has no shortage of humans
willing to pay for her services. And last fall she began
teaching her animal communication skills at the Rollins
College Center for Lifelong Learning, where her
monthlong courses have quickly reached their 25-student
first class, I kind of thought, ‘Well, this might work
for her, but I won’t be able to do it,’" says
Denise Fisher, an Orlando insurance executive. "To
be honest, it seemed a little voodoo-ish. But I’ve
seen from the exercises we do in class how much our
posture and tone can affect the animals. … I’m a
a recent night, Maldonado brings in a pack of five
Italian greyhounds and a pair of Great Pyrenees to
demonstrate how they react to varying human postures.
The breeds are nearly polar opposites: one is small,
smooth and high-strung; the other huge, hairy and
mellow. A student assuming a Wonder-Woman-like
"power pose" — hands on hips, head and
shoulders back, feet straight and firmly planted —
elicits a confrontational yapping from the boldest of
the little dogs, while a 140-pound Great Pyrenees tries
to skulk out of the room timidly.
can see how much your body language makes a
difference," says student Janice Buczkowski of
Heathrow, Fla., who works at the Audubon Center for
Birds of Prey. "I’m trying to I use it in how I
approach the birds. It seems to help."
— whose husband, Henry, is the president of Maitland,
Fla.’s Enzian theater — wasn’t always an animal
whisperer. But a decade ago, while convalescing from hip
surgery, she began reading on the subject, which had
always fascinated her. That eventually led to the
opening of her Center for Animal Therapies, which hosted
local practitioners lecturing on subjects from animal
first aid to biofeedback to Qigong — a Chinese
practice that melds medicine, meditation and martial
arts for healing.
took all the classes herself. Then she began trying out
some of what she’d learned to lower stress in rescued
animals before opening a practice with private clients.
just kind of bends down sideways and does some breath
work, and it seems to be very calming," says Diane
Gagliano, program coordinator for Seminole County Animal
Services. "I believe in it. I think the animals
sense this quiet energy she has."
Sarullo, founder of the nonprofit Pet Rescue by Judy in
Sanford, concurs. "It’s amazing — what she
does," she says. "She’ll spend time with our
animals and then tell us what they want."
case, a few years ago, involved an abandoned white
poodle named Jack, who would growl, snarl and try to
bite anyone who came near.
meets with him and tells me, ‘His whole life, all he’s
ever heard is that he’s a nasty little dog. You need
to tell him how much you love him and build up his
confidence,’" Sarullo says. "I felt
ridiculous, but every day I would tell Jack how great he
was and that I loved him — and he ended up being the
most wonderful little dog, and the lady who adopted him
treats him like a king."
admits some of her staff volunteers have been skeptical,
despite small miracles of transformation. "They’ll
tell me it’s bull—," she says. "I tell
them, ‘Bull— or not, do what she says because it