Pets and the paranormal
0 comment Thursday, May 22, 2014 |
'For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.' - From Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart
This story was all over the cable news channels yesterday: the story of Oscar, the cat, companion of the dying.
Grim rea-purr: The cat that can predict death
...Oscar, as everyone in this nursing home is agreed, has special powers - more even than the doctors and palliative care specialists who come to tend to the terminally ill here.
For like a harbinger of bad news, Oscar is able to discern the exact moment at which the angel of death comes to stand at their bedside. It is an unusual skill, certainly. All the more so because Oscar is just a cat.
The fluffy, two-year-old, grey and white brindled pet was adopted by the dementia unit at the home in Rhode Island and named by its residents after a famous American hot dog brand.
Yet his skills of divination are beyond question - and have even been the subject of an article in as august a publication as the New England Journal Of Medicine. To date he has predicted the deaths of 25 patients, and done so with such accuracy that he has completely won the trust of even the initially incredulous medical staff.
"This cat really seems to know when patients are about to die," says Dr David Dosa, a geriatrician at Rhode Island hospital who also attends patients at Steere House. ''
This story fascinates me, because I am an animal lover, and because animals are fascinating creatures in themselves. I believe they are much more perceptive and knowing than we humans imagine, and they are capable of much more than many of us think. We are too prone to deny that they operate on anything other than instinct, but all animal lovers know that animals are capable of devotion, and self-sacrifice. It's odd, and sometimes a cause for annoyance to me, that many people have a visceral dislike for and distrust of cats in particular. I find it strange that many people who are dog lovers seem to loathe cats as much as they love dogs. They ascribe only the worst motives to cats, even when a cat does something like this:
Alert tabby saves family from fire
The hard-core ailurophobes will say that the cat was not saving the family; it was merely acting in self-interest to save itself.
But then there was Scarlet, the mother cat, who rescued her five kittens from a fire, repeatedly returning into the fire to retrieve the kittens, and being badly burned in the process. How do the skeptics rationalize that?
I am not sure why some people have such antipathy towards cats in particular. I have heard it explained in male/female terms: men prefer dogs because dogs are hierarchical, and will treat their masters as top dog, and men like this. Women, on the other hand, are more egalitarian and prefer a pet who is not servile, such as a cat, who is independent and aloof. I think this is an overgeneralization; some women prefer dogs and loathe cats, and many men are cat lovers.
Desmond Morris puts it this way:
"Artists like cats; soldiers like dogs."
That too may be an oversimplification but there is truth in it.
Still, I get the impression from the silly cable news reports of the Oscar the cat story that many people regard cats with suspicion, and see them as vaguely sinister. Oscar the cat, rather than being a comforter of the dying old folks, was some kind of feline angel of death, according to the fools on the cable news channels, with their scripted 'jokes.'
Whatever; I'm inclined to see the story of Oscar as a heartwarming if sad story. It's sad in that so many older people live out their last days in an institution; in older times, the very old and ailing were usually looked after by relatives, and died surrounded by loved ones in their own homes or a relative's home. Now people die in an institution among strangers, and Oscar the cat may be the only one nearby to comfort them. So Oscar's presence is the only thing which makes the nursing home setting more like home, with the presence of a furry friend. And Oscar seems to know when the patients are nearing the end.
And although the skeptics deny that pets have any kind of 'sixth sense,' there is plenty of evidence that they do indeed sense things that we cannot. Those who live in earthquake zones know that their pets often behave strangely before a quake.
Predictably, the hard-nosed skeptics in the scientific profession scoff at the idea that pets can 'predict' earthquakes.
In fact, the notion that odd animal behavior can help people predict earthquakes is perceived by most traditional geologists in the West as folklore, or an old wives tale, and is often cast into the same boat as sightings of poltergeists, Elvis, and the Loch Ness Monster. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, considered an understanding of the relationship between unusual animal behavior and earthquakes to be an esoteric form of Secret Knowledge. That such strong support for the application of this knowledge exists in the East-- in long-lived civilizations like China and Japan-- is testimony to the reality of the phenomenon, as they have witnessed many more earthquakes in their long histories than has a comparatively young country like the U.S.
But not all Western geologists are close-minded with regard to the phenomenon. James Berkland-- a retired USGS geologist from Santa Clara County, California-- claims to be able to predict earthquakes with greater than 75% accuracy rate simply by counting the number of lost pet ads in the daily newspaper, and correlating this relationship to lunar-tide cycles. This maverick geologist, has been meticulously saving and counting lost pet ads for many years. Berkland says that the number of missing dogs and cats goes up significantly for as long as two weeks prior to an earthquake.''
This source tells how the animals in the local zoo became agitated right before the big Seattle quake in 2001.
Meanwhile, animals at the Woodland Park Zoo sensed what the best human instruments could not detect. Seconds before the quake struck, keepers reported that the orangutans began to bellow and the elephants (attuned to sounds far below the threshold of human hearing) became agitated. Pets all over the area disappeared for hours into secret hidey-holes.''
Pet owners, including myself, can tell similar stories about their animals' behavior before quakes. Our cat became very agitated just before a fairly sizeable quake back in the late 90s.
Unless you are a determined skeptic, there seems to be ample evidence that animals have some ability to sense things that human beings cannot sense. It may be that science has no ready explanation for their abilities, but that should not lead scientists to scoff and to rule out any such abilities, simply because they can't explain such occurrences.
Then we have the phenomenon of seizure alert dogs: dogs who have in recent years been found to have an ability to sense when its owner is about to have a seizure.
There is some skepticism about seizure alert dogs; some experts are very cautious in ascribing special sensitivity to dogs.
According to this source service dogs can help people who have various medical conditions, including diabetes and Parkinson's Disease.
In addition, dogs have been trained to assist persons with psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorder. These dogs learn to recognize changes in their owner's behavior or environment that indicate paranoia, panic attacks, hallucinations, or potentially harmful repetitive actions, for example, and may remind them to take medication.''
Then there are therapy dogs, who provide companionship and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, and mental institutions. Oscar the cat would be in this category. There are studies showing beneficial effects, measurable improvements in blood pressure and stress hormones, with the presence of therapy animals.
So it's not at all far-fetched to believe that Oscar the cat can sense physiological changes occurring near death. Just because science cannot explain this as yet is no reason to deny that it is possible. If dogs can detect seizures and other medical conditions, why cannot a cat sense when someone is on the verge of death?
Science, and those who revere science as omniscient and potentially omnipotent, might learn a little humility. Science is, after all, simply a body of human knowledge, and as such, it is not all-encompassing, and it is still very incomplete. And science has been known to reverse itself, and to declare yesterday's certainties as having been erroneous after all.
Many of us are familiar with the story of how the scientific establishment denied, until the 19th century, that meteorites existed because they 'knew' that there were no stones in the sky, so therefore meteorites could not possibly fall from the sky. And in my lifetime, the facts about our solar system have had to be revised again and again as new data became available via space probes. So science is not infallible, being just the compiled knowledge of a number of fallible human beings. Scientific knowledge is far more tentative and conditional than many people are willing to acknowledge.
Some scientific skepticism seems to be an overreaction to the widespread credulity of our age, and some of the superstition and fascination with bizarre phenomena but skepticism, while healthy to a degree, can become too dogmatic, and too closed-minded. A real scientific attitude would imply some degree of openness, and a willingness to follow facts where they lead, rather than beginning with a desired conclusion and looking for facts to corroborate that pre-determined conclusion.
It's obvious that animals, even common house pets, have keener senses in many ways than we humans, and it is only a short step from that recognition to the possibility that Oscar the cat senses the impending death of the residents of Steere House.
And as for those silly media people who insist on making the story a grotesque one of a 'grim reaper cat' or a 'feline fatale' as the Glenn Beck show described Oscar, they are putting a macabre twist on the story which I don't see at all. Is Oscar's visiting the dying patients creepy and scary, as they imply? Or is his presence comforting to the dying? I incline towards believing the latter, but then I am not a TV personality who feels the need to make wry jokes about death omens. If, heaven forbid, I spend my last days alone in a nursing home, I hope that there is a feline presence to curl up next to me and ease my passage. Pets are sometimes the only comfort that the elderly have in this increasingly atomized, self-centered society we now live in.
"What greater gift than the love of a cat?" - Charles Dickens

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