CBS Films
CBS Films

A Brief History of Felines on Film

CBS Films
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).

Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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