Kedi, A Heartwarming New Documentary, Stars Istanbul's Street Cats


In Istanbul, the cat is king. The city is famous for its legions of feral felines. Even though no one technically owns them, these hundreds of thousands of street cats are as well cared for as any pet—people feed them, welcome them into their shops and homes, and even bring them to the vet. The kitty culture in Istanbul is notable enough that the Turkish city’s magical relationship with its feline residents is the subject of a new documentary, Kedi. And yes, it puts all other cat videos on Earth to shame.

Kedi follows seven street cats on their daily jaunts through the city, exploring their social lives and encounters with their favorite human friends. The documentary takes a cat’s-eye view of the city: The camera tracks low along the ground, eye-to-eye with the film’s feline stars as they roam the streets, following them into cafes, up onto rooftops, and down to the waterfront. Most have several human allies who care for them and whom they visit every day.

In interviews, these caretakers often meditate on the fiercely independent nature of the cats living around them. One compares being friends with a cat to communicating with aliens. Most of the interviewees call the cats that pop into their lives "friends," rather than "pets." The cats come and go as they please, each one with its own agenda and distinct personality. They might stop by for a bite to eat or for a round of petting, then move on to their next destination. Some stalk boldly into cafes, while others wait patiently outside for someone to bring them a snack.

Many cities have stray cats, but the people of Istanbul have an unusually friendly coexistence with their feline residents. Director Ceyda Torun, who was born and grew up in Istanbul before her family relocated to New York, attributes the city's unique relationship to its feral cat population to its culture. “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul,” says one resident in the film’s opening.

Cats have a special place in Islamic folklore as well, Torun tells mental_floss. In one folktale, the prophet Muhammad cuts the sleeve off his robe to avoid disturbing his sleeping cat.

More importantly, cats have been wandering the city for millennia. Founded as Byzantium in 660 BCE, Istanbul has been a major trading port for centuries. And with the ships came the cats. The oldest known remains of a domestic cat were found in nearby Cyprus, where humans have likely had feline pets for some 9500 years, and Torun says there’s evidence of Turkish cat culture dating back more than three millennia. One zoologist she spoke to—who had been collecting animal remains under the Bosporus strait—found the 3500-year-old skeleton of a cat whose broken leg had been mended by human hands.

To get a sense of just how revered Istanbul's street cats are, consider this: In 2016, the city erected a statue by a local artist honoring a recently departed street cat, Tombili. He was so beloved (locally and on social media) that the petition for a statue of him gathered 17,000 signatures in less than two months. Street cats are welcome at mosques, in cafes, and in people’s apartments.

Torun and her crew spent three months in Istanbul finding both human and feline subjects before any filming even began. They took a two-pronged approach to their search, both roaming the streets themselves to look for cats and asking locals if there was a special cat in their neighborhood, including cats that hung out in a particularly unusual place, like a mosque or a Turkish bath. Some of the subjects, like the mother cat who stars in the first vignette—cheekily nicknamed “YellowS**t” by one shopkeeper who feeds her—were only discovered after production began.

As you might expect, cats don’t make entirely dependable film subjects. For one thing, they could get a little too excited about the cameras. At times, Torun says, “we had a hard time shooting because we had multiple cats on us rubbing their face on the camera rig.” They ended up with a lot of shots of cats “just rubbing themselves on the camera or rig or spraying things [with urine].” Luckily, once the cats had made a thorough inspection of the cameras, they tended to go back to whatever they were doing before. “We have hours and hours of footage of cats grooming themselves or sleeping. They weren’t going to perform,” Torun says.

And yet, in other ways, the cats were easier to film than you might expect. “They stick to routines,” Torun explains. “They do the same things over and over. They don’t really stray out of their territory.” All the documentary crew had to do was show up in the right places. They would come back every other day or so during the two months of shooting to see what the cats were up to. Some of them even seemed to know they were being filmed.

The cats would perform “as if they were getting instructions from me,” Torun says. The film ends on a rooftop, focused on a cat perched on a ledge as the sun sets over the city in the background. “He almost knew that we were making a movie and that was the best place,” says the director.

Torun ended up with 180 hours of footage of cats lounging around, stealing food, begging for attention, and more. The finished film, debuting in the U.S. on February 10 courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories, clocks in at an hour and 20 minutes. But if Torun decided to release those other 178-plus hours of cat videos, we wouldn’t be opposed.

All images courtesy Kedi.

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.

15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.


There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)


It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.


Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.


American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.


The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.


This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.


The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.


These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.


A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.


The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.


This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.


Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.


Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.


You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.


Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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