oscarthecat.jpegOscar on his rounds. Photographer: AP Photo/Stew Milne.

The story of Oscar the cat has zipped around the world as has nothing else recently. I’ve seen stories on the little fellow in newspapers in India, Afghanistan and Australia, as well as other news orgs worldwide.  Granted, many newspapers and TV stations like to do stories on celebrities or cute fluffy animals doing cute things — especially when it means that they can avoid talking about things such as the import of a United States Attorney General lying like a rug under oath — but I’ve never seen a “cute little animal” story like this become a worldwide obsession.  Papers in countries that don’t give a damn about Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan have had something to say about Oscar.

Oscar, you see, seems to have an interesting talent:  Predicting death.

Ever since Oscar’s story was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there has been a firestorm of controversy over this small two-year-old male cat.  

For those who are coming late to the story:  Oscar, in his two years of life (he was raised from kittenhood at a hospice for persons with dementia), is normally a very aloof cat.  He does not normally cuddle up to people.  The exception:  Those hospice residents who are four hours or less away from dying.

In twenty-five cases, when Oscar has jumped up on the bed of a hospice patient and stayed there, that patient has quietly passed away within four hours of Oscar’s appearance.  He lies on the bed next to the dying person, purring away; when the human staff note his presence, they take it as a signal to immediately notify the person’s family members that their loved one is about to expire.  Because of Oscar, the persons in that hospice are guaranteed the comfort of friends and relations — as well as a purring guide from this world to the next.  Small wonder that the hospice has put up a plaque in his honor.

Many explanations have been advanced:  Coincidence, his alleged attraction to the heating pads often placed on dying persons as their circulation fails, or simply the re-socialization of a born predator’s super-sensitive feel for death into something that aids the human family of hospice patients and workers wherein he’s spent his entire life.  Lots of people who are themselves scared to death of death see the cat as an enemy and accuse him of killing the patients himself.  The more mystical among us say that Oscar is in fact helping the confused spirits of dementia victims find their way to Heaven.

Whatever it is, I think it’s just peachy that he’s doing it.  He is truly a bodhicattva, helping beings not of his species achieve catori.  He ensures that his charges aren’t alone when they die, and that’s not a small thing.  The fact that he’s normally a grouchy cat — rather like a feline version of Gregory House — detracts not one whit from his good deeds.   (And he shouldn’t be blamed for the US media’s shoving Alberto Gonzales’ dicey deeds down out of view:   The media moguls weren’t and aren’t going to tell us all the full story on Gonzo anyway; if Oscar wasn’t around, they would have chatted about something else instead, but they would never have given AGAG’s perfidy the full treatment that it deserved.  As Jamison Foser’s article points out, it’s not just that the media’s addicted to fluff, it’s that they will bird-dog a scandal when a Democrat is the culprit, but when a Republican commits actual and far more serious crimes, they only give cursory coverage of them.)

Well done, Oscar, and keep it up.