Since the dawn of time, cats have always intrigued humans. Regardless of their size, we can watch a tabby stalk a fly, or a lion lie in wait for a gazelle with equal fascination. Perhaps their mystery and aloofness remind us that we, too, were once wild, uncivilized beasts. We admire them for their grace and beauty, and are grateful when we earn their love and trust. Here are some great docs that celebrate everything we love about cats of all sizes.
1. Kedi (2017)
This delightful Turkish documentary gives us a cats’-eye view of what it’s like to be a footloose feline in Istanbul. The people who care for these feral kitties don’t attempt to own or control the independent creatures, they simply tend to their needs—as much as the cats will allow.
Among the featured cats is Psikopat, a black-and-white shorthair female who chases off both pit bulls and other female cats who get too close to her mild-mannered mate. The human caretaker of Bengü, a stubborn gray tabby with green eyes, tells us, “It’s said that cats are aware of God’s existence, but dogs are not. Dogs think people are Gods, but cats don’t. Cats know that peoples are middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.”
These street cats don’t just represent the free spirit of the Turkish people, but the shrinking presence of nature. In Istanbul, as in every modern city, nature is losing ground to ever-creeping civilization.
As the opening narration tells us, “The cat embodies the indescribable chaos, the culture, and the uniqueness that is the essence of Istanbul. Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”
2. Feral Love (2016)
When we first meet the film’s subject, Dorian Rence, she’s walking down steep, snow-covered steps to feed feral cats under a bridge in New York City. She confesses that in 12 years, nothing has ever kept her from feeding the cats she’s named Maggie and Dexter —not even an accident that left her with broken bones.
We eventually learn that this middle-aged cat lady is a distinguished member of the New York Philharmonic, and that Maggie the cat wasn’t named after a certain Elizabeth Taylor movie, but for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat. The film, made by a neighbor who witnessed Dorian’s trek every day to feed the cats, is as much about Dorian’s complicated life and the Philharmonic, as it is about the cats she dotes on. Her goal is to get the cats inside for this particularly brutal winter—if she can capture them.
“You can’t dictate what your loves are,” Dorian shares. She adds, “If you can’t be an eccentric in the middle of New York City, where can you be eccentric?”
You’ll want to have tissues ready for this one.
3. Lions: Spy in the Den (2000)
Thanks to the “Bouldercam,” a remote camera hidden in a rock, this documentary (culled from 3000 hours of footage) gets some incredibly close-up scenes of a lion family, including memorable images of dad playing with the kids, and lion cubs stalking birds.
The classic narration from David Attenborough yields such gems as, “In parenting, lions are from the old school. They are not afraid of discipline.” Cue a lioness picking up one of her young by the scruff of the neck. If you’re okay with seeing lions at their predatory best, which includes taking down various zebras and wildebeests, this is a fantastic look at the kings of the jungle, in all their magnificence.
4. The Lion in Your Living Room (2015)
This episode of The Nature of Things examines the science behind all things peculiarly feline, including night vision and that uncanny ability to land on their feet. It also explores many things you probably didn’t know about your pet kitty, including the fact that their hearing is even better than dogs—all the better to hear the high-pitched squeaks of mice.
Vets, biologists and even a DNA expert weigh in on what makes cats tick, hunt and purr. This documentary explores the evolution, development, and history of cats and their evolving relationship to humans. We also learn about the newest cat mutations and breeds. “Cats are on the verge of the genetic explosion, where there’s going to be all sorts of new traits being brought into the domestic cat,” says Carlos Driscoll, an expert in genomics and the domestic cat at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “One hundred, 200, 300 years from now, the domestic cat will be considerably different than it is today, I’m willing to bet.”
5. African Cats (2011)
Samuel L. Jackson narrates this gorgeous DisneyNature doc, directed by veteran wildlife filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. It focuses on two big cat families on the African savanna: The River lion pride with aging mom Layla, cub Mara, and pride patriarch Fang; and single cheetah mom Sita and her five newborns.
We watch as the cubs learn to navigate their world, rough-housing together and getting guidance (and regular tongue baths) from Mom. The shots of Sita running slow-motion are truly breathtaking, and there’s plenty of suspense in the rivalry between the elder Fang and his black-maned Kali.
Since the emphasis is on family togetherness and less on bloody animal kills, the movie earns a very family-friendly G-rating.