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A Brief History of Felines on Film

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CBS Films

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a well-trained animal dazzle on the big screen, and cats are no exception. In fact, cat actors are frequently more impressive than the rest of the animal kingdom, simply because it’s hard to imagine getting cats to do anything they don’t want to do.

And yet professional cat acting still exists, against all odds. Next up in the great hall of cat performances? A smattering of star turns in Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming film Inside Llewyn Davis. While marketing for the film has focused on just one handsome orange tabby (often seen tucked under the arm of leading man Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis actually utilized a number of cat actors for the production—a process the brothers found pretty difficult. "The whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don't care about anything," Ethan told NPR. "As the animal trainer said to us, 'A dog wants to please you. A cat only wants to please itself.' ... In True Grit we had a vulture, a trained vulture ... that was a pain. But I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible." 

Still, the cat acting work in Inside Llewyn Davis is quite exceptional, especially considering that its furry stars were asked to do things like jump out windows, act calm while being hustled down a busy city street, and run around a noisy New York City subway car. Some human actors couldn’t do that without flinching.

The history of cat acting is long and rich and just a bit fuzzy, much like a Maine Coon or a Norwegian Forest, and it’s one you’ll want to cuddle up to as soon as possible.

From Edison to PATSY

Like so many other things, we have Thomas Edison to thank for the very first cat actors. Way back in July of 1894, Edison himself reportedly made the very first viral cat video when he put two cats into a tiny boxing ring and let them hash it out (with a little help from a human handler) and recorded the results on film. They may not have been professionals, but these two certainly looked the part.

A likely candidate for first feline in a feature film is the unnamed star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat. While the identity of the cat actor playing the eponymous black cat is unknown, the sleek kitty’s frequent appearances throughout the 1934 film are integral to the feature’s plot (and scares).

Since The Black Cat, a number of cinematically-inclined felines have graced the silver screen. Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played by the well-known star Orangey (who was also sometimes called Jimmy and Rhubarb), was the only feline to win a staggering two PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, the animal actor's version of an Oscar). Other PATSY winners of the feline variety include Pyewacket from Bell, Book and Candle, Syn Cat from That Darn Cat!, and Morris from those classic 9Lives commercials.

The Unnamed Meowers

Despite that handful of recognized (and recognizable) cat actors, there are also plenty of famous roles filled by unnamed cats—like Jake from the 1978 film The Cat From Outer Space, Binx from 1993's Hocus Pocus, and Jones from 1979's Alien. And one of the most famous unnamed cats around showed up in seven James Bond films.

The prize pet of notorious baddie Blofeld, this white Turkish Angora had screen time in From Russia With Love, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, For Your Eyes Only, and Never Say Never Again, and spent most of his (or her!) time simply being stroked by its owner in a nefarious fashion. Though Blofeld’s cat never got a name, he was a major player in the Blofeld world—it was his very appearance that would often signal just who the bad guy was (the character was played by various actors over the years and was occasionally just an anonymous villain, albeit one with his own cat).

Blofeld’s cat has become so famous that he’s even been parodied—many times!—from Mr. Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers films to the Inspector Gadget cartoon series.

Cats and Dogs, Living Together...

Of course, there are plenty of animal-centric films that keep our four-legged friends in business. Two of the best examples—Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and The Adventures of Milo and Otis—relied almost exclusively on the skills of their various animal actors, including cats who needed to get along with dogs to make the whole thing work. Tiki the Himalayan played Sassy with some serious, well, sass in the former film, performing alongside both a Golden Retriever and an American Bulldog.

The latter film also required cat and dog relations to remain strong on set, with the various cats that played curious orange tabby Milo absolutely having to get along with the various pugs that played the more straight-laced Otis. Filmed over a period of four years, the identities of the many stars of Milo and Otis still remain unknown (and continued claims of animal abuse, all of which have been shot down, haven’t helped). We’ll likely never know who played who (and over which age period), but the feline stars of Milo and Otis handily exhibited some of the best cat acting of the century.

More recently, the Harry Potter franchise featured a jaw-dropping number of animal actors (including cats, rats, owls, and many more), all of whom were expected to act and behave while wild, magical, wacky things (read: green screen) were going on around them. The standout cat actor of the eight-film series was undeniably Crookshanks, Hermione Granger’s notoriously crotchety cat (who also happens to be half-Kneazle, at least in the world of the books). In the films, a stunning male Persian named Crackerjack played the role of Crookshanks. (You can see Crackerjack and his trainers in action in the video below.)

A consummate performer, Crackerjack reportedly endured a great indignity in service to his work—his trainers would gather bits of his shed fur, roll it into balls, and clip them back on to him in order to really pump up his rough and slightly mangy appearance. Somebody cast a little, cat-sized Oscar for Crackerjack, who certainly seems due for a Lifetime Achievement Award after years of going through that just to deliver a good performance.

Cats, of course, are still cats—and sometimes their independent streak can get in the way of their craft. Such is the case with Montie, a former understudy to famous cat actor Vito Vincent, who was summarily dismissed from the Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s earlier this year. The New York Post reported back in May that Montie got the sack for acting “unruly.” You know, like a cat. Montie’s firing even made it to the gossip pages of Page Six, where it was mentioned alongside the apparent demands of Vito (Vincent? Mr. Vincent? Sir? Meow?) that he have his own car and driver each night and the news that Montie was set to be replaced by a kitty named Moo.

Cat acting, it seems, is not just all fluffy balls of string and belly rubs—it’s work (and deserving of a treat or two).

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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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