Netflix and meow: Cat documentary features CVM’s Kornreich

Curious why your cat is cuddly or aloof? How cats always land on their feet? Or why you can’t ignore their plaintive meows?

Dr. Bruce Kornreich, D.V.M. ’92, Ph.D. ’05, a veterinary cardiologist and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine, sinks his claws into those questions as a featured scientific expert on “Inside the Mind of a Cat,” a documentary premiering Aug. 18 on Netflix.

“It’s about what makes cats special – what’s unique and cool about cats with respect to their behavior, their anatomy and their physiology, and how cats have integrated into our society,” Kornreich said. “It’s going to be fun.”

Dr. Bruce Kornreich, D.V.M. ’92, Ph.D. ’05, a veterinary cardiologist and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center.

Red Rock Films, producer of the Emmy-winning 2021 National Geographic series “Secrets of the Whales,” invited Kornreich to participate in the project, one he said supports the center’s outreach mission to improve feline stewardship through education.

In the roughly hourlong, international production, Kornreich appears locally in Ithaca, including at the Alley Cat Cafe downtown, where producers assembled the “ultimate cat playground” to capture cat superpowers in slow motion.

“Forget everything you think you know about cats,” the trailer begins. “A new generation of scientists is challenging preconceptions.”

As a kitten climbs on Kornreich’s shoulder in one scene, he notes that Felis catus – the domestic cat – descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat. Cats were solitary predators – silent, fast and flexible – for 6 million years before joining forces with humans, he says, and they’re much the same animal today.

“Genetics-wise,” Kornreich says in the trailer, “you basically have a wild animal living in your house.”

Later, he explains how flexible vertebrae and super-elastic cushioning between disks enable cats to perform extraordinary aerial acrobatics, including their prowess at landings.

“They first have to recognize where their body is in space,” Kornreich says, “using a phenomenon known as the righting reflex.”

Kornreich introduces the “incredible shrinking hole experiment,” in which cats use their whiskers and an ability to narrow their shoulders and chests to squeeze through a series of smaller and smaller holes.

Physical contact, he explains, is a huge part of how cats interact with people. When they rub against you, they are marking you with scent glands, which is “a compliment,” he says. And when cats really want something, their meows may achieve a plaintive pitch that is particularly effective at getting people’s attention, a phenomenon illuminated by recent studies.

“They seem to be able to insert frequencies that overlap with the frequencies that a human baby makes when it cries,” Kornreich says.

Kornreich said filming was a memorable experience, as he watched cats running, jumping, climbing, chasing toys and squeezing through holes, their movements recorded by high-speed cameras. When producers set up a large hamster-like wheel in the Alley Cat Cafe, he doubted any cats would take to the contraption, especially while surrounded by people and cameras.

“But before my eyes, these two cats got right on it, and man, they were loving it,” he said.

Others were more shy – evidence, he said, of cats’ diverse personalities.

Kornreich, who in 2020 mourned the loss of his 22-year-old black-and-gray tabby, Einstein, said he hopes “Inside the Mind of a Cat” isn’t just educational, but inspiring.

“We want to inform the viewer,” he said, “but also make them realize how incredible cats are, to make people say, ‘Wow, that is really cool.’”

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Becka Bowyer