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Vice

Juliette Eisner, co-director of Lil Bub & Friendz

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Vice

When Juliette Eisner, a communications associate at Vice, heard about the Internet Cat Video Film Festival taking place at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota last year, she immediately knew she wanted to cover it. Her piece grew from a short film into the documentary Lil Bub and Friendz, which premieres today at the Tribeca Film Festival (you can also watch the film yourself after it premieres; more information on that here). Eisner co-directed the doc with Vice's senior producer, Andy Capper, and got to spend lots of time with Bub—one of the most popular cats on the Internet—in the process. Thankfully, Bub's fame doesn't seem to have gone to her head. "She’s not a diva at all," Eisner says. "She’s the best-behaved celebrity I’ve ever met." We spoke with Eisner about meeting Bub, how she found her experts, and why she thinks the internet loves cats.

mental_floss: I’m curious about the development process. I know Vice does a lot of this kind of thing, but how did this documentary in particular come about?

Juliette Eisner: Vice covers a lot of culture and other types of stories. We do a lot of stuff about the internet and today's pop culture icons, and this just seemed pretty interesting to us, right off the bat. I definitely think that these celebrity cats are our new pop culture icons—replacing the Hello Kittys and the Garfields of the world.

I heard about the internet cat video festival, which was last summer at the Walker Arts Center. I was really taken aback when I first read about it, because the Walker Arts Center is such an awesome, renowned establishment, and I thought it was really funny that they were going to do a whole festival [about] internet cat videos. I pitched the idea to the team, and Andy Capper, who’s the senior producer of Vice [and co-director of this documentary], loved it. And we just picked up and went to this weird, weird cat video festival. I had reached out to [Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky] when I found out that we were going to go, and I invited them to be our cat celebrity friends. They came, and from the moment that we met Bub, we knew that she was super special and that her story was really, really interesting. So we decided to continue filming.

I think a lot of that was also because the festival itself was incredibly packed. It was like 10,000 people who had traveled from all over to see these cat videos being played for an hour on a little screen. So we realized that we’d tapped into something bigger than just an internet phase. It definitely is something that’s relevant, today, on the internet, in the internet culture.

mental_floss: Everyone who hasn't had a chance to meet Bub is probably wondering—what’s she like?

JE: Oh, my God. In the film, when I meet her—that’s totally the first time I actually meet her, I’m not pretending or anything—it literally is like a punch in the stomach. You’re like, “Am I looking at a cartoon? Is this an alien? I’m not sure.” She really does have that effect on people. She definitely is a weird-looking creature; she’s not a normal-looking cat. But on top of being just interesting-looking, she has this very calm demeanor to her—Mike is always like, “She’s an other-worldly cat; she’s kind of the Buddha of all cats.” But it’s true. 

Tribeca Film Festival

mental_floss: You traveled all over the place to make this documentary. How long did it take?

JE: It started at the end of August, for the festival, and then we went to Bloomington, which is where Mike and Bub live, to visit her in her hometown. And then she also came to New York for some press event that she was doing and we filmed her there. And then in the middle, we spent our time getting to know more about this internet phenomenon. We were talking to the I Can Haz Cheezburger CEOs of the world, and all these people who study and are very knowing about how social [and] internet trends have changed. It was maybe a five-month filming process, but it was all kind of side-project-y style, late night shoots on the side, and then somehow it became this really awesome feature-length film.

mental_floss: You talked to a lot of people; how did you find them? 

JE: The majority of the pet owners we spoke to were from Minneapolis who were at the festival, and then the other internet people—Ben Lashes [who manages Internet meme celebrities], he’s based out of LA, and Grumpy Cat lives in Arizona—we just started realizing what a big community it was, and reached out to these people [including a professor]. And everyone was really on board to talk to us. It was not that hard to find [people], which is also interesting. This is something that people do spend a lot of time researching and looking into.

mental_floss: Lil Bub & Friendz is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Was the plan always to submit it to a festival?

JE: Not at all. Our original plan was to do a short, fun piece for Vice about the [cat video] festival. But I think that, at the festival, we realized that not only could we make a fun story about Bub, but [that we could look at] how the internet has changed the way that you can have a career. People can be famous by putting their image online. And you can make money from merchandising yourself by just being a famous character that people know about. And it was really interesting to us.

mental_floss: Why do you think people on the internet are so crazy about cats? Do you have any insight into that now, having made this film?

JE: I’ve been thinking a lot about this—why certain viral videos do better than others. I think that cats definitely cater to the kind of people who are looking for something that’s going to make them smile or laugh, like cute animals, to begin with. But I also think that cats, specifically, as opposed to other animals—they are probably the more mysterious house pet. That’s kind of the stigma around cats: that they do their own thing, they’re the independent ones, they don’t care, and dogs are the opposite. I think people like to see images of cats doing weird things because it’s a way to see into the mystery of the creature, and get to know them a little bit better or see them doing things you wouldn’t normally see them do. But it still kind of is this big question mark.

In the doc, Amy Kellner, who created the Cute Show for Vice, who now works for the New York Times, said that for her, it was all about feeling better. These cats make her feel better about her day. She’ll put [a kittycam] on her screen while she’s working because it calms her. Bub gets fanmail daily, and a large majority of it is like, “I’m going through such a hard time, but Bub’s picture makes me happy.” People really look to these pictures and animals to find comfort.

mental_floss: In the process of making this, did you learn anything that really surprised you? 

JE: I was super surprised going to the event; that was the big shocking moment for me for sure, realizing how big of a thing this cat phenomenon is. And then realizing that it’s become something that you can really have a career from. Ben Lashes was also a really funny character for me, because he’s essentially a manager of a band, but his band is a famous internet celebrity meme. He does the same things that any band manager would. And the fact that there are people like that out there—I don’t think most people realize or understand that. That’s his job and he is doing a really good job at it.

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Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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9 Wild Facts About the Bronx Zoo
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Even if you’ve never set foot in New York, you almost certainly know of the Bronx Zoo. Opening its doors for the first time in 1899, this sprawling 250-acre wildlife reservation has over 4000 different animals and 650 species. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about one of the world’s most famous zoological retreats.

1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY A TAXIDERMIST.

William Temple Hornaday was working as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution when he noticed that the nation’s population of bison was shrinking. Eager to promote conservation efforts, Hornaday used his voice with the Smithsonian to spread the word about the threatened species. After a spat with the Institution, he was approached by the New York Zoological Society in 1896 to serve as director of the Bronx Zoo. In doing so, Hornaday helped bring the bison back from the brink of extinction by sending several of the Zoo's bison back out west in 1906. He remained with the zoo for 30 years.

2. IT ONCE HOUSED TASMANIAN TIGERS.

Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were nearing extinction in the early 1900s, but the Bronx Zoo was able to acquire several for exhibition beginning in 1902. The first lived for six years; the next two, arriving in 1912 and 1916, lived only a short time in captivity before perishing. The zoo's last thylacine was secured in 1917. The species was thought to have died out in 1936, but in early 2017, several eyewitness accounts of the distinctive animals were reported in Australia. Zoologists are working to determine if the thylacine might still be alive.

3. THEY EXHIBITED A MAN.

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In the most ignoble chapter in the zoo’s history, organizers opened an attraction in 1906 that featured a "Mbuti pygmy” or “bushman”—an African man named Ota Benga. Benga and other tribesmen had been brought to America by anthropologist Samuel Verner at the behest of organizers of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair so visitors could gawk at them in mock-up villages. When the fair was over, Verner brought Benga and others back to Africa: the two struck up a friendship, and Benga reportedly asked to come back to the States. Verner approached the Bronx Zoo with the prospect of Benga becoming a fixture: Hornaday agreed to let him live on and roam the grounds. Public outrage followed, and Benga was released after just two weeks to the care of an orphanage. He committed suicide in 1916.

4. THE ZOOKEEPERS HAD TO BE TOLD NOT TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BEARS.

Too much children’s literature about cuddly bears may have proven disastrous for early zookeepers at the park. In 1919, Hornaday told the New York Tribune that he had to constantly warn his employees not to try and befriend the mammoth bears housed on the property. Two keepers ignored his advice; both had to be pried from the clutches of the bear and suffered “severe” injuries.

5. IT’S HOME TO A REMNANT OF THE ICE AGE.

Not all of the Zoo’s attractions are feathered or furred. The Rocking Stone sits near the World of Darkness exhibit and packs 30 dense tons into a formation standing 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The boulder was carried by glaciers in the last Ice Age. The “rocking” label came from the fact that the stone was so perfectly balanced that it could be moved with slight pressure. The Zoo, fearing someone might one day push it too far, eventually shored up the base to keep it on firmer footing.

6. THEY ONCE SAVED A SPECIES OF TOAD THAT WAS DECLARED EXTINCT.

The kihansi spray toad was in dire circumstances in 2009: A hydroelectric dam in Tanzania had dried up mists showering a five-acre area near Kihansi Gorge, the toad's only known micro-habitat, and the species was officially declared extinct in the wild. Fortunately, Tanzanian authorities had seen the situation coming and allowed the Bronx Zoo to come in and obtain 499 toads to bring back to America. A portion went to the Toledo Zoo; both facilities spent nearly a decade breeding them in a captive assurance population. The Zoos replicated their habitat while Tanzania created a gravity-operated misting system that would restore water. Roughly 100 toads were returned in 2010 as test cases; a full-scale reintroduction followed in 2012.

7. A COBRA ONCE ESCAPED (AND SIGNED ONTO TWITTER).

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Animal escapes have been few and far between at the Zoo. One of the most publicized was the the disappearance of a 20-inch venomous Egyptian cobra in 2011. Zoo officials weren’t certain how the reptile broke out of her habitat, but felt confident she would remain in the building. She did, and was found after a week’s search. In the interim, someone on Twitter engaged 203,000 followers with the freed snake’s fictional exploits. It’s still tweeting.

8. IT SET AN ORIGAMI ELEPHANT WORLD RECORD.

In 2016, the Zoo was recognized by Guinness World Records as having the largest displayed collection of origami elephants in the world: 78,564. The display, which was briefly open to the public, was intended to draw attention to the plight of the creatures and their poaching rivals through their 96 Elephants campaign meant to stop the trafficking of ivory. The Zoo is down to just three live elephants, and has vowed not to acquire any more once they pass. On August 3, 2017, Zoo organizers plan to crush two tons of ivory in Central Park as part of the awareness campaign.

9. IT HAS PLANS FOR YOUR POOP.

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With thousands of daily visitors, the Bronx Zoo could probably make use of its own sewage system. Instead, the park unveiled an eco-friendly restroom on park grounds in 2006 that captures human waste and diverts it into compost. The system, which uses only six ounces of water per flush, is estimated to save a million gallons of water a year.

Want to learn more about the Bronx Zoo? Catch The Zoo, a documentary series now airing on Animal Planet. New episodes premiere in February.

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