In one video, the athlete pauses, assesses the height and leaps. He tries to free-climb up the side of a building, before jumping back to the ground. In another, he leaps across a roof, his shadow stretching out long in front of him.
This gymnast, though, is a cat. Specifically, he’s Gonzo of @gonzoisacat. He has more than 607,000 followers on TikTok and 178,000 on Instagram.
Gonzo is the star — and the director — of his own shorts. Rather than his owners filming his stunts, Gonzo can capture them himself with the help of a tiny camera that attaches to his collar. The result is an extreme sports cinéma vérité-style documentary from a cat’s perspective. And it’s catching on online.
In Norway, a GoPro-wearing cat roams across snowy meadows or climbs on a roof. One in China also recorded under-the-chin videos. Another catfluencer named Mr. Kitters has 1.5 million followers on TikTok and nearly one million on Instagram, where viewers can watch him meow at a bird or chase a squirrel.
“The cat goes out there, and it’s like, ‘What is he doing, out in the world?’” said Derek Boonstra, 40, who cares for Gonzo with his wife, Maria, in Los Angeles.
The couple decided to start filming Gonzo about four years ago. They wondered what he was doing when no one was watching — and wanted to make sure he was safe when he was exploring outside. After experimenting with a D.I.Y. camera, Mr. Boonstra bought one from the brand Insta360. (In exchange for two more free ones, he said, he tags the camera company in his videos.)
Gonzo, who has more than 600,000 followers on TikTok, where viewers can see the world from his perspective.Credit…Maria Boonstra
The first day they filmed included about “90 minutes of him sleeping in a bush,” said Mr. Boonstra, a documentary filmmaker who has a tattoo of the cat. But then Gonzo ran into some baby opossums. “That was immediately like, this is really fascinating,” he said.
Cats are among the earliest and most constant staples of the Very Online. Jason Eppink, who curated an exhibition about cats on the internet at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2015, broke down online cats into three main eras.
When YouTube and message boards were dominant, cat clips looked a lot like America’s Funniest Home Videos. They were a little grainy and amateurish.
“There wasn’t this cat industrial complex yet,” said Mr. Eppink, an artist and curator.
Then, as Facebook took hold, the cats became memes. (Think I Can Has Cheezburger.) Silly-looking celebrity cats, like Lil Bub or Grumpy Cat, rose with Instagram and the early influencer internet.
The rise of wearable camera technology, though more often used by surfers or snowboarders than pets, has led to another niche style of cat content. Like viewers of extreme sports videos, cat video fans regularly note the thrill they feel when their feline stars leap or scamper.
“A lot of the comments are: ‘I kind of wish I were a cat,’” said Scott Irwin, Mr. Kitters’s human. “It’s a way for them to escape for 15 seconds at a time.”
Mr. Kitters, who lives in Indiana, does more sponsored content, posting videos about a pet-grooming vacuum or the camera itself. He started the account in August, and has gotten some free cat-related products, too.
It’s picking up. In the past month, the account has made about $8,000 through TikTok and partnerships with Pretty Litter and the video game Genshin Impact said Mr. Irwin, 58.
Mr. Kitters is his 20-year-old daughter Lucy’s cat. (They have six other cats, too.) The father and daughter used to send each other cat videos on TikTok, as a way to bond. When he saw Gonzo’s videos, Mr. Irwin bought one of the cameras for himself. Initially, he thought of the footage as a “photo album,” he said.
Like other cats, Mr. Kitters spends much of his time sleeping and lying around. But he has an adventurous side that he captures on video.CreditCredit…Scott Irwin
Mr. Kitters became a celebrity almost within a week. Mr. Irwin started tagging Insta360, which gave him two free cameras, he said. (He also earns a small commission if someone purchases a camera through his link.)
Fans love Mr. Kitters for his chatter and chirps, sounds that people usually only associate with human interactions.
That might be the real draw of these videos: Cats are enigmas. We humans rely on a slim codex of tail flicks and meows to read their emotions. In part, that is because of the history of domestication, said Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert at Feline Minds. Humans have been living alongside dogs for longer than cats, she said, and we often project human mannerisms onto them.
“Cats have fewer facial muscles, so people have a harder time reading cats in general,” Dr. Delgado said.
Outdoor cats also spur curiosity, said James A. Serpell, an emeritus professor of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. The videos reveal a hidden side of cat behavior, one unmediated by a human presence. “People may get a vicarious thrill from following the adventures of their cat,” Dr. Serpell said.
Lots of the footage can be boring nonetheless, Mr. Irwin said. After all, most cats spend a majority of their days napping or sitting. But “every once in a while, you get that 15 seconds of gold.”
Still, there’s something strange about the way that Mr. Kitters’s fans expect him to be, well, human. Some of Mr. Kitters’s fans ask for specific interactions, like seeing him climb a tree, which baffles Mr. Irwin.
“I can’t make him do anything like that,” he laughed. “I’m not doing anything but posting the videos that he’s filming and directing.”