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Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Training Mountain Lions to Walk on Treadmills (for Science!)

Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Cat owners everywhere know how hard it is to get their felines to do something when they don't want to. Now imagine your cat is 5 feet long and 135 pounds, and you’ll understand the challenge University of California Santa Cruz's Terrie Williams faced when she decided to measure the energetics—or flow and transformation of energy—in mountain lions, which required getting the big cats to walk on a treadmill. “It’s one of those things that you put into a grant proposal and hope you can pull off,” the professor of ecology and evolutionary biology says. “There’s a reason why mountain lions and jaguars and leopards are not generally in shows—it's because they're impracticable. I got ulcers over that part of it.”

Williams, who has been studying animal energetics for most of her career, had always wanted to work with big cats; mountain lions were the natural choice because of their proximity. “They’re right in our backyard,” she says. “We had a young mountain lion come down near the lab—it was pouncing on a glass door because it saw its reflection!"

Knowing mountain lion energetics (or any other big predator's energetics) is important because it helps scientists see how many calories a population needs to survive and ensure future generations, which in turn helps conservationists and ecologists make wildlife management and planning decisions. "If you want to have big, charismatic predators around, you better know what they need to eat,” Williams says. “If you don’t pay attention to that, you start to see more and more human/animal conflict.”

In humans, scientists measure energetics by putting people on treadmills with special instruments that measure how many calories they expend, so Williams would have to do the same thing with mountain lions—not just get them on treadmills, but also outfit them with the team’s custom-built collars that included radio and satellite tracking as well as an accelerometer, which “allowed us to calibrate the collar both for behavior and energetics,” Williams says. Big cat experts told her that that would be tough to do, too: "Most facilities told me, ‘You can’t put on a collar!’ I was like, ‘Great.’”

Still, Williams was determined to do the research; it took her three years to find a facility that was game to try. She found Lisa Wolfe, a veterinarian with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, through a friend; Wolfe had raised three mountain lions from the time they were kittens after their mother had been shot. “I didn’t even want to tell her about the treadmill,” Williams said. “I just said, ‘Can we put a collar on your cats?’”

Photo by T.M. Williams

Thankfully, Wolfe had no difficulty getting the collars on—it took all of five minutes—so all that was left to conquer was the treadmill, which the veterinarian also had on hand. Getting the cats on that took a little longer, though: Wolfe worked with the cats for 10 months. “The hard thing about cats on treadmills—even domestic cats—is getting them to face forward,” Williams says. “They don’t do well on treadmills because they look at their feet. Dogs will look at you, canids will look up, but cats will want to see where their feet are going on a treadmill, so their head goes down and then they trip and fall and it’s a mess.” To keep the cats facing forward and walking naturally, Wolfe used meat, feeding the animals as they were walking.

There were a number of engineering challenges, too, to get the treadmills ready for the cats. “The hardest part was the sounds—mountain lions are really intoned to sounds, so I had to be very careful with the instrumentation in the vacuum pumps,” Williams says. “And that really took the longest time.” Plus, Wolfe’s treadmill, intended for humans, was too short—the cats ended up with their back two feet off the treadmill and their front two feet walking on the belt—so the researchers got a dog treadmill with an 8.5-foot surface. Then they built a clear metabolic box around the treadmill so they could accurately measure oxygen consumption, taking into account not just the length of the animals’ bodies, but their tails, too. “The box had to be big,” Williams says. You can see the cats strutting their stuff in the video below:

Williams and Wolfe had the animals sit in the box at rest, then had them walk, trot, and run while wearing the collars. “We didn’t do a lot of running, because when we did the tests with the collars, just with the animals in the enclosures, we decided to stick with what the animals did routinely and not force them to do these high energy things, which we found even for the wild animals, really isn’t their style,” Williams says. “Their style is a stalk and pounce. They walk around a lot, pretty slowly. They’re not fast movers unless they’re being chased or chasing something.”

From collaring the captive cats and making them walk on treadmills, as well as videotaping their behavior in their enclosures, Williams and her colleagues were able to learn how many calories the cats expended for every step they took, whether they were going uphill, downhill, resting, hunting, eating, or drinking—basically, any behavior you can think of. “We had this library that had the signature on the accelerometer, the assigned behavior that goes with it, and how many calories the animals had to expend for that behavior,” Williams says. “Then you multiply that by the time they spend doing each one of those behaviors each day, and suddenly, you know the when and where of how they’re making a living. Like a diary.”

In the background of this illustration are typical SMART collar accelerometer traces for walking and then running, while the foreground shows a collared puma chasing a black-tailed deer. (Image by Corlis Schneider)

That gave them a base that they could apply to the five wild mountain lions they collared and tracked. Williams and her team decided to examine the most energetically expensive part of the day: The two-hour hunt and kill. “What we found was that the more they can sit and wait, or the more they can stalk as opposed to running around the country-side looking for things, the cheaper it is for them,” Williams says. “They get more calories for a prey item, relative to what they expended to get it, if they can do this normal, cryptic behavior. If you make these cats walk more to try and find food, the harder it’s going to be for them.”

They also discovered that wild cats use more calories than captive cats. “We were off about two and half times when it came to what we measured versus what had been predicted for energetic costs,” Williams says. “It makes sense. Think of yourself on a treadmill, and then think about how many calories you spend when you’re running around a trail. It’s those ups and down and twists and turns and rights and lefts that you’re doing that cost you. For us, we get to lose weight, but for the cats, it’s a tougher way to make a living.” Habitat depletion, either by human development or causes like fires, means more walking for mountain lions.

The SMART collar technology not only helps scientists better understand what these mostly hidden animals are doing, but also help come up with strategies to save them. “People want to think that these animals just don’t need that much—it keeps them less fierce—but we need to face the reality that it takes a lot be a carnivore,” she says. “[Tracking gives us the] ability to create wildlife maps that are based on biology of the animals, as opposed to looking at a map and saying ‘mountain lions belong here.’ You’re now able to say that animals are able to thrive in a particular area, that there’s plenty of food for them, and the result is fewer animal-human conflicts. I feel it’s a whole new way of doing conservation.”

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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