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Few adopters actively seek out a kitty who can’t see, but when you watch YouTube videos of Oskar the blind kitten—now a full-grown cat—you might find yourself wanting one just like him.
Oskar is a bona fide Internet celebrity feline, right up there with Maru, the Scottish fold who loves boxes, and Grumpy Cat, the hilariously frowny star whose crabby face is everywhere online.
But Oskar, who won the first “Friskies” Award last November for the “Best New Internet Cat Video,” does more just than elicit laughs. The 2-year-old brown tabby—with an assist from his owners—has raised awareness of how great special-needs pets can be, contributed thousands of dollars to three cat rescues and sanctuaries, and helped other blind cats get adopted from shelters around the country.
Mick and Bethany Szydlowski weren’t looking for a cat in July 2011, when they visited a farm near Glenwood, Iowa, to inquire about a vintage musical instrument—an autoharp, made by a company called Oscar Schmidt—for sale on Craigslist.
When Mick agreed to buy it, the owner suggested he take home a kitten from his property, too, since the farm was home to litter after litter of them every year. The man added that one kitten, who was then lounging under a huge tractor, seemed to have been born without eyes.
“Bethany and I made a decision, right then and there, that out of all the cats, that’s the one that would have absolutely the worst chance of survival,” Mick says, so the couple took him home to nearby Omaha, Neb. A veterinarian confirmed that the kitten had no visual receptivity to light, due to a condition called microphthalmia, or abnormally small eyes.
The next day, the couple started documenting their experiences with Oskar, taking videos of him adjusting to his new indoor life and bonding with their other rescue cat, Klaus. That October, they began to upload the clips to YouTube to share with friends and family, and also shared them on Facebook—and the videos went viral.“Probably within a week’s time, it reached the level where it was picked up on national TV,” Mick recalls, appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and shows as far away as Japan. In December 2011, the couple and Oskar did a Skype interview on Good Morning America.
Though they’ve uploaded a number of videos featuring Oskar and Klaus, the two that captured people’s hearts the most are “Oskar the Blind Kitten Versus Hair Dryer—Epic Cat Battle,” which shows him adorably shadow boxing against an unseen (to him) blast of air; and “Oskar the Blind Kitten and His First Toys,” in which he discovers—first tentatively, then exuberantly—the joys of playing with balls with bells in them.
The first video has now attracted 2.3 million views, while the second one has recorded 4.5 million. The videos brought a chorus of requests from fans for more pictures and information about Oskar and Klaus, which led the Szydlowskis to create a Facebook page for their cats, then a blog, and now Oskar&Klaus, a Web shop that sells a variety of cat toys, cat ties and bows (handmade by Bethany), and branded clothing.
The couple donates 20 percent of all sales from the website to three partner organizations: The Cat House, a cage-free shelter in Lincoln, Neb., where they adopted Klaus; the Blind Cat Rescue & Sanctuary in St. Pauls, N.C.; and The Cat House on the Kings, a sanctuary in Parlier, Calif. The couple has distributed checks for $1,400 to each partner organization so far, according to Mick. But the Web shop’s sales in January nearly equaled the total sales of the previous five months, so more checks are on the way.
And the couple won $15,000 when “Oskar the Blind Kitten and His First Toys” won top prize at the Friskies Awards, money that the Szydlowskis plan to use to fuel the growth of their website—and the distribution of more checks to their shelter and rescue partners.
Meanwhile, Oskar and Klaus’s Facebook page has become a forum where people across the country share stories of blind or other special-needs cats needing adoption. Videos of Oskar have helped change the way many people view blind cats, according to Alana Miller, founder of Blind Cat Rescue & Sanctuary. “They’re thinking, ‘OK, he’s adorable,’” she says. “They no longer have a perception that this is a handicapped animal.”