A little over three years ago, Mick and Bethany Szydlowski filmed a snippet of a blind Iowa farm kitten they adopted as it learned to play with its first toy, a ball with a bell in it. They soundtracked it with a song from Mick’s Lincoln-based band, Smith's Cloud. The humble goal was to save this memory of their new tabby, Oskar, for themselves and family and friends.
Then the whole adorable thing exploded on YouTube.
Since then, Mick, 40, and Bethany, 29, moved from Nebraska to Seattle, and by the time they got there, Oskar had gone beyond viral. The clip of him batting a ball with a bell in it, which has now been viewed more than 6 million times, won a 2012 Friskies award for the Internet’s best cat video.
More fans found Oskar. People wrote the Szydlowskis to ask them what it was like to raise a blind cat. Others wrote to say they’d adopted their own.
“There’s such a world of people that are cat-obsessed,” Szydlowski said. “We kind of dropped into the whole world.”
Then people demanded Oskar products. So they created a site to sell some shirts and tote bags.
“I kind of noticed the more things we started adding to the store, the more (the store) did good,” he said. “That really was never an intention to be a full-time job for anyone.”
Nowadays, Oskar and his friend, Klaus, whom the Szydlowskis adopted eight years ago from the Nebraska Cat House, run with some of the Internet’s A-list cats. Grumpy Cat, Hamilton the Hipster Cat ... they all partied together on a Friskies commercial while a song called “Cat Summer” played in the background.
That Friskies ad paired the selling of a product (cat food) with a cause that the Szydlowskis admired (giving a million cans of cat food to needy shelters). That’s the route that the Lincoln High School graduate said they’ve taken, on a much smaller scale than the cat food titan, with oskarandklaus.com.
“Ride the wave, have fun and try to do a little good in the world,” Szydlowski said.
Oskar and Klaus have a support staff of three humans. Mick works on big-picture projects and seeks out nonprofit shelters to partner with for awareness campaigns. Bethany takes on product fulfillment duties, shipping stickers and bow ties and organic cat nip made by smaller, independent U.S. companies to cat lovers all over the world. They both take cat pictures, posting them on Facebook (facebook.com/blindoskar) and Instagram (oskar_the_blind_cat) for legions of likers. And the Szydlowski’s longtime friend and Mick’s former bandmate, Travis Bossard, works in Lincoln on the publishing side of things.
This winter, the cats starred in their first children’s book, “Oskar & Klaus Present: The Search for Bigfoot.” Bossard and Mick Syzdlowski co-authored it, and commissioned Russian artist Alex Novoseltsev to illustrate it.
“The book idea is something that stems from the fundamentally positive things to take away from the Oskar experience,” Szydlowski said. “Just kind of shifting the perception of what it’s like to take care of an animal that has a perceived disability.”
The project began with a Kickstarter campaign. They sought $10,000 in support and pre-orders -- most of the Kickstarter rewards came with one or more copies of the book. They got $54,855.
“’Searching for Bigfoot' is an enriching adventure story with a message of friendship and inclusion,” reads the Kickstarter description. “Getting outside of our comfort zone to reach out to a new friend can be a life-changing experience that yields unexpected joys. Oskar & Klaus have shown this to be true in their own lives. While Oskar was born blind, he has overcome any of the low expectations others may have had for his happiness. The little farm kitten now enjoys a fulfilling life while Klaus has found a trusty companion who encourages, challenges and surprises him every day.”
“We could have repackaged the meme of Oskar being a cute blind cat,” Bossard said. “We really wanted to steer away from that. He’s not meant to be pitied.”
It happens though. Look through the YouTube comments of Oskar videos and it won’t take long to find one on the lines of “Oh, poor baby.”
“He’s probably one of most curious, energetic playful cats that we’ve known,” Bossard said. “He can open doors. He can climb to the highest space he can find.”
With the book, Bossard said the team wanted to write a story that didn't focus on the fact that Oskar is blind, but instead on the fact that Oskar is adventurous. He asked a friend, Barbara Loos, president of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults and a former commissioner with the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for examples of effective and ineffective children’s stories that featured a character who was blind.
“The list for ones that don’t do it well is much longer,” Bossard said.
The ones that got it wrong, she told him, tended to make the blind character dependent on others. Or on the opposite end, the character had super senses to compensate for blindness.
The ones that did it well tended to not focus on that aspect of the character, Bossard said. So that's what they did with their book. The word "blind" is mentioned once, on the cover flap. The story alludes to Oskar's blindness at times, but only to propel the action forward. ("The darkness simply does not bother me," Oskar says as he convinces Klaus to venture deeper into a forest. That was Loos' line, Bossard said.)
Bossard said he and Mick have plans for a second book, but they're going to see how this one does first. As for the cats' online presence, they have years of social media metrics to work with.
“The things that stick is basically just a close-up picture of one of the cats,” Bossard said. "Those will get 4,000 likes. They just want to see the cats, and they want that daily cat fix is what we’ve found.”
The book is available at the From Nebraska Gift Shop in the Haymarket and online at oskarandklaus.com.