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Oscar the Cat

08/15/07 7:55AM By Allen Gilbert

(HOST) Every summer there’s an off-beat, whimsical story that catches people’s attention, says commentator Allen Gilbert. This summer it’s the story of a cat that seems to have special powers.


(GILBERT) It’s hard not to be taken by the story of Oscar the cat.
 
Oscar is the feline who lives in a Rhode Island nursing home and seems to have the uncanny ability to predict the deaths of patients. He walks through the nursing home like a doctor on rounds. He sniffs and observes patients. When he senses someone is near death, he sits by the patient. Usually the person dies within four hours.
 
Oscar has done this not just once, twice, or even several times. He’s done it 25 times. He’s got doctors scratching their heads. His story was reported in an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine. News media around the world picked it up.
 
A doctor from Brown University works in the nursing home. She’s an expert on caring for the terminally ill. She told how she became convinced that there’s something special about Oscar. The doctor had watched Oscar make 12 correct calls. But then Oscar seemed to miss a woman who the doctor felt was very near death - the patient wasn’t eating, she had difficulty breathing, and her legs had a bluish tinge -- all signs to doctors of imminent death. But Oscar rejected the diagnosis. He left the room. Eight hours later, with the woman still alive, Oscar returned, and stayed. She died within two hours.
 
If Oscar were an everyday person, we’d say he had supernatural powers. In medieval times, Oscar might have been considered a mystic, and made a saint.
 
If Oscar were a doctor, well, then, maybe we’d conclude he was simply a darned good one. Extensive professional training coupled with modern technology enable doctors to have a pretty good sense of what’s going on in our bodies.
 
But neither of these things is true. Oscar is a cat. So strike religion for an explanation, and strike medical professionalism. Something else is going on.
 
Dr. Joan Tano, the doctor who was outsmarted by Oscar on his 13th call, wonders if Oscar has some keen sense of smell that picks up telltale scents of death. Or maybe Oscar can tell something from the behavior of the nurses who raised him as a kitten in the nursing home.
 
A Tufts University professor who directs an animal behavior clinic wonders if Oscar is motivated by "...self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person."
 
What I see in this story is recognition that there’s more for us humans to understand about life, death, and the human body. The Tufts professor said the only way to figure out what makes Oscar tick is to watch him closely, and document how he spends his time between those patents living, and those dying. That’s the basic scientific approach, - observe, record, review the evidence, develop a theory. It’s what separates science from myth.
 
The ancient Egyptians believed cats were sacred. We could turn back the clock and apply that explanation to Oscar’s behavior. But I don’t think that would satisfy our modern minds. We’re just too curious - as cats, like Oscar, are said to be.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.
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