Article: Cat Film Stars by Colin Tennant

Cat Film Stars
This narrative will give some insight into the intriguing world of cats, their behaviour and relationships with their owners and the techniques used to obtain fascinating sequences for the Cat Care Video range and for the recent BBC television series. Cats are the pets we love to love, but only when they allow it, or so it would seem. So what kind of relationship do we have with our cats and why do they, at times, drive their owners mad? What sort of problems do cats exhibit compared with dogs? You can at least tell a dog to sit, come or teach him a set of rules, because they truly are a pack animal, in other words, designed to live with a family.

Cats, on the other hand, are in general, natural born loners and do not take kindly to being treated like a dog, nor do they respond to instructions, however they are given. Issuing commands or forcing a cat to do something provokes an adverse reaction; if you really get uppity with a cat it may simply pack its bags and be off, gone, end of relationship – Goodbye! Dogs, mistreated, will still hang about and take the good with the bad. Now I have made videos on marine and tropical fish, rodents and natural history television series, but cats have to be right at the top when it comes to the patience needed.

Cat Videos
I have produced seven educational videos on cats with Roger Tabor the presenter. But cats still challenged our wishful thinking when the cameras rolled on the latest video Breaking Bad Habits for Cats; unlike the dog educational videos, filming cats was much more difficult. A favourite observation by John Bowe the cameraman, was “ Point the camera at any cat and all I get is a big bum in the viewfinder as the cat turns from the camera and disappears from sight”. Dogs just can’t wait to be a star, slobbering down the camera lens. “Film me!” they yelp, while cats can’t stand or be bothered with the attention from the unfamiliar “luvvies” and all that technology. When we attended the GCC show to do some filming, we went down row after row of cats. The amount of time and tape used was large compared to the amount of usable footage examined later. Yes, true to form, cats seem to turn the other way when a huge bulky camera lens is planted in front of them – often to the consternation of their breeders who wish to show off their most perfect specimen. Nevertheless, you have to realise that you don’t own a cat, it is the cat that owns you and one has to tread gingerly if cats are to be seduced into starring in your next film or television show.

Terrible Twins
My own cats, River and Meadow, were certainly candidates for mischief – they starred in the video as the terrible twins. When they were kittens one of Meadow’s bad behaviours was chasing River about the kitchen work surfaces and in so doing knocked off a brand new Cappuccino machine sending debris and broken bits of it across the floor. I was not impressed! So I began to make the kitchen surfaces somewhat less agreeable for the cats’ adventures. I left small ashtrays filled with several mothballs or orange peel on the surfaces – oranges and mothballs smelt disgusting to the cats. The next day Meadow leapt onto the counter only to be met by the foul smells. She smartly leapt back down to ground level and both cats soon found more pleasant playgrounds for their gymnastics.

Dagger Claws
Biggles, a Burmese cat, often scratched its owner Richard when he tried to tickle its tummy. John, the cameraman, was poised ready for action. Right on cue the claws would immediately embed into Richard’s hand. Naturally he would pull his hand away, because the pain was intense, well, wouldn’t you? He shouted at Biggles, which, of course, exacerbated the confrontation. Any form of aggression towards a cat will normally damage its confidence, but Biggles thought this was fun; after several more takes and a much scratched hand, we all sat down for tea whilst Biggles looked on unconcerned and quite content with his stunt work. I advised Richard to keep his hand still even though it would hurt initially; hurt being the understatement. I wisely did not offer a free demonstration; sometimes it’s preferable not to lead by example where cat’s claws are involved. With Richard keeping his hand motionless, the cat became less stimulated by the touch on the belly. Richard then had to gently move his hand and this seemed to provoke less counter reaction scratching by Biggles. In time the cat became less agitated and more benign and could be stroked. Take 8 marked the end of the filming session for that day.

My House Keep out Cats fighting
Cats by nature are solitary creatures. Tiger, a big male Tabby did not like the new arrival, Snowy, a five-month-old kitten that had been rescued by Tiger’s owner, Andrea. She tried in vain to get the cats to like each other, but as so often is the case, cat war broke out. Tiger relentlessly attacked Snowy at every opportunity. I advised Andrea to purchase a small indoor cage for Snowy to allow the cats to meet in safety. Snowy was placed in the cage when Tiger, the established cat, was present. Tiger eventually approached the cheeky Snowy through the bars and in time got used to his scent. Over a few more weeks Tiger began to accept Snowy on his territory, however, some cats will never accept a new friend and that is why some will even leave home. On one particular day it took John, the cameraman man, five hours just to film Tiger and Snowy sparring, which was then shown in less than seven seconds of the video Breaking Bad Habits for Cats.

Bedroom Wildlife
Getting up in the morning to find a collection of dead voles, rats and mice strewn about your bedroom floor is a sight to quickly open wide those sleepy eyes. Maureen’s cat, Ginger, often left decapitated rodents for her inspection and delectation. Maureen has a phobia about such animals and getting from the bed to the door was frequently a skip and a jump with the odd scream. Even worse – and I have experienced this with my own cats – is live animals brought in that subsequently are released by the cat and then race around the living room with a cat in full pursuit like Sylvester and Tweety Pie. “How can I stop this she asked?” Cats are hunters and their wild side is part of being a normal cat. Ginger was simply bringing back the night’s food shopping in the same way that Maureen does from Tesco’s, only Ginger’s is not so well packaged, less hygienic and sometimes alive; if a live animal is brought in you can resort to the “wellie” technique. Using a wellington boot, place it against the wall where the animal is scooting along. The cat, or you, will get the animal to move and the dark hole of the boot will appear as an escape route. When the prey runs in, hold the top shut and release the lucky creature in the garden. A cardboard cereal box, minus the cereals, or long bag will also work. As for stopping them well that’s not really possible unless you keep the cat in during the night; this can be achieved by feeding early in the evening and then securing the cat flap. Though many people believe cats devastate the local bird population this is, in fact, untrue. Cats have little effect on any of the garden species except in keeping the healthy birds on their toes.

My cat hates me
Sheba was a rescue moggie brought home by Linda as a gesture of kindness; unfortunately, Linda is convinced that Sheba hates her and all humans and feels that whenever she wants to cuddle Sheba she has to chase and catch her. Sheba then cannot wait to get away from its fawning owner. I deal with these types of cats and know, as with dogs, that if the initial socialisation as kitten or puppy normally between 3 and 8 weeks is not managed well the result can be a cat that is not habituated to humans. Advice: Linda should now alter the cat’s entire routine. Manipulate Sheba’s feeding, encourage Sheba to work for tit bits of her meal, trail the food bowl to say, a low chair and as she follows, hungrily, Linda can offer Sheba small amounts from one hand whilst her other hand gently strokes her back. Sheba will, over several weeks, associate food time with touch and become less afraid. In time the tit bit can be placed on Linda’s lap and hopefully Sheba will leap up to receive the reward. The cat will now be following and seeking out Linda instead of the other way round. In conclusion never pursue any unfriendly cat for cuddles; it only reinforces the fear.

I hope that this new video will help many cat owners not only stop bad behaviour, but help understand the cat. Pleasant Pheasant & Scaredy Cat: I do a great deal of filming, movies and still shots, from the Centre. Bowe Tennant Productions, my film company is based in Watford and the Cat Behaviour Centre is in the Chiltern Hills near Berkhamsted. It is neither easy nor practical to bring over a cameraman at a moment’s notice just because my cat Lily is about to practice some extraordinary behaviour, which we may well use in one of our future cat productions. We, therefore, keep a second set of cameras at the centre.

During October I was typing away in my consulting room when I saw through the windows a big cock pheasant slowly making its way along the field of corn, which is still quite short. Suddenly the pheasant halted, froze and this told me something had made it cautious. I got up and then saw Lily stalking the pheasant along a low grass bank with not more than 20 yards distance between the two of them. The classic piece of theatre was set for the supreme predator, the cat and the rather dim pheasant, eyeing each other up. Now Lily often brings back an array of rodents, including rats, for me to film even though I’ve told her that I have seen enough, but this time I thought I would be presented with something different. Back to the drama: I quickly assembled my camera, surreptitiously slid out of the office door and placed my camera on top of a post for balance. The pheasant became quite concerned about my presence, but was so fixated with the approaching cat that I was then ignored. They stared at each other for what seemed like ages then the cat, with her belly pressed low to the ground, began her move forward; the gap closed and I was very excited, but not half as much Lily was. The pheasant, meantime, unexpectedly set off towards the cat. The pheasant did appear very curious as to what this creature was that was stalking it. Now great hunter cats like Lily are not used to the prey walking towards them – the stimulus for prey catching in cats is the prey moving away from them once the cat has been detected. Suddenly the pheasant ran at the cat. Lily legged it with the pheasant in pursuit. Lily ran towards me, the pheasant saw me, halted and slowly ambled away just like that cartoon grouse in the TV Famous Grouse Whisky advert. Quite comical really.

Cats About The House
I had to see a client with eight cats in St Albans, because the house training system had become untenable. Half the cats were kittens and suddenly there was an explosion of spraying and faeces dropped in the wrong places – namely the couch and so on. I filmed the general cat interaction to see if there were any bullying or other related disagreements between these beautiful cats. The cats were all over me demonstrating such intelligent and genial characteristics. They investigated all my behaviour equipment and camera boxes. These cats were, oddly enough, ‘wannabe’ film stars, so I shot as much play and climbing behaviour as possible. I eventually solved the problem and now they are all clean, the owner is happy and the cats all allowed back into the entire house. One of the Ginger Burmese kept posing for me over and over again in the fireplace and just in case I didn’t get a good shot the first time, turned the opposite way for poses 3, 4 and 5. So in conclusion, maybe I’ll take back a little and say not all cats are a cameraman’s nightmare, but like most cats, they just keep us guessing as to what they really think. The cat’s mind is still a mystery.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Colin Tennant for the CFBA.