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Alison Rosa. ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

Dawn Barkan, Head Animal Trainer on Inside Llewyn Davis

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Alison Rosa. ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

If you've seen any of the Meet the Parents movies, you're familiar with Dawn Barkan's work: She's the one who trained the cats playing Mr. Jinx to use the toilet. She's also wrangled creatures big and small for numerous films and television shows, including The SopranosThe Road, and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. We talked to her about working with three felines on Inside Llewyn Davis, which was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Sound Mixing and Best Cinematography. (If they gave out animal Oscars, Barkan's cats would surely take home the trophy.)

The Coens told NPR that they’d work with the “stupid vulture” they used on True Grit rather than work with a cat again. Why is it so hard to train cats?
I’ve been hearing that they’ve made several remarks about cats and cat training. I was kind of surprised because cats are not hard to train—if you showed up on set with an untrained cat it would be disastrous. We were on set more than we weren’t on set, and there were really just a couple of bumps in the road. When you work with animals, that happens sometimes. Both of the things that were a bump in the road were not a surprise to me, and they shouldn’t have been a surprise for them because we talked about it prior, extensively. So I'm perplexed.

So cats aren't hard to train, but what makes training a cat different than training a dog?
They’re different beings. I think of cats as walking and living satellites. Their ears are picking up every sound, and their bodies are picking up all the vibrations around them, so they’re constantly tuning in to everything that’s going on around them, and they’re sensitive. So if there are loud noises or a lot of commotion, and the cat hasn’t been desensitized to that, they’re going not going to be comfortable, whereas dogs are a little bit more easygoing—where you are, they’re fine. They’ll follow your lead. They’re like, “Oh, OK, you’re standing next to a train! Woohoo!” They don’t care, they’re just more relaxed by nature.

Cats aren’t. They’re constantly bringing in bits of information and assessing what they are, and if they’re not familiar with what the things are that are going on around them, then their first response is to want to get away—what we call “spook.” So when you’re working with a cat, what makes it successful is one, having a good team of cats—that’s your first battle. The second element is time. Time is your friend. But the most important thing is having the ability to prep the animal in the situations where they’re going to work. Sometimes you have that luxury and sometimes you don’t. We did not have time or the luxury to prep on location on Inside Llewyn Davis, and keeping those things in mind, the cats did remarkably well.

We had the odds stacked against us on this film. The cats were—I don’t know how to say this, because I say this lovingly, I loved my teams of cats, I love the animals I work with—but they were not the best team of cats I’ve ever worked with. We got about half the time that we needed and it was nobody’s fault other than that’s when we were hired, and that’s how much time we had before we went to camera, and because of where they were shooting, which was on city streets, in subways—you can’t really replicate that. I can’t go take my cat on the NYC subway and prep him. That would be an impossible situation, because you’d need the area controlled at first. So a lot of it was training the behaviors in a simulated environment, and then quite frankly, going in and winging it and setting it up for success as much as we could.

Was what was required of these cats tougher than on other films you’ve trained cats for?
I will say that in the 30-something years that I’ve been working, this was one of the toughest shows I’ve ever done, strictly because of the environments the cats were in. They’re not New York street cats—they were saved from a shelter in Orlando, and we trained them and put them into this situation. So they were going into an environment that they didn’t know all that well. We did replicate it as best we could—but still, it’s not happening in that moment for real. It’s not like you just caught that cat in that moment running down the street. You’re asking the cat to run down a street through a crowd of people 15 times. You have to ask that behavior over and over and over of the animal. So they have to be comfortable and they have to be trained or you would get nothing.

How can you distinguish what’s a good cat for training versus one that’s not?
Cats who are interested in playing the game, who want to learn, for one. Cats are like people—they have different personalities. There are some cats who are more shy, there are some cats who are more outgoing, there are cats who are more aggressive, there are cats that are more timid. So really, you want one that’s a little more outgoing and aggressive—and I don’t mean in the mean sense of the word, but more curious about their surroundings and not afraid to get out there and explore. That’s what gives you a good cat.

One of the cats that I used for Little Fockers doesn’t know he’s a cat. He thinks he’s a dog. And that kind of laid back personality makes a very good training cat.

Associated Press

How did you accomplish all the shots you needed for this movie?
We started with five cats, initially. We fired two early on, because they weren’t really cut out for the biz, so we let them go relax. So basically we had three cats. We had our two action cats, Daryl and Jerry, who we used for the majority of the action scenes—running through the subway, down the street, jumping through a window, coming down a 5-story fire escape. Then we had one cat who lent herself very well to being the holding cat. There’s a large amount of the film where Oscar’s just holding the cat, and we used our little female for that.

How do you get a cat to do things like run down a street or a subway platform?
Cats work for food. That is their reward. Like we go to work and expect a paycheck every week, they go to work and they expect their food. You use food and you pair it to a sound, like Pavlov with the bell. It’s the same kind of thing. You start out by teaching a cat to come to a sound and that’s how you get cats to do an A to B. And you take it from there. You can pretty much teach them to do anything.

How long does the training process take?
Usually with an untrained cat, you want about 12 weeks. It takes about 30 days for them to get the idea, but then depending on what the behaviors are, normally we like to have about 12 weeks. Sometimes you can’t have that—like Inside Llewyn Davis, we had six weeks.

Do they retain their behavior?
Yeah! You might have to refresh their memory because they’re not doing it every day, but once they’ve learned to learn, you can get them to go with the program pretty quickly.

Did you have to train Oscar Isaac to work with the cats?
We spent a little time with Oscar. We just made sure he was comfortable holding the cat, which he was. He was very compliant and helpful. That always makes our job easier.

Alison Rosa / Long Strange Trip LLC

If cats aren’t hard to train, what animal is hard to train?
It’s not the animal, it’s a particular animal. There are some dogs that make you want to pull your hair out. It depends on the particular personality of the animal. Some breeds are easier than others. But I’ve worked with just about everything from bugs to great apes, and I find it to be individual personality rather than a type of animal.

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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