The Pet Tree House - Where Pets Are Family Too : Circus Cats: Meet the Amazing Acro-Cats and Rock Cats The Pet Tree House - Where Pets Are Family Too : Circus Cats: Meet the Amazing Acro-Cats and Rock Cats

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Circus Cats: Meet the Amazing Acro-Cats and Rock Cats

To train a cat to balance on a ball and walk it forward, you will need a weighted ball, a track to place it on, a hand-held clicker and lots of kitty treats. Each time the cat masters part of the process — standing on the ball, say, or learning to walk backward to make the ball advance — you make a clicking noise while delivering a treat. It takes time, patience and a willing cat.

“You start very small,” said Samantha Martin, ringleader of the Amazing Acro-Cats, a 14-cat circus that is coming to New York City next week for the first time. “Some tricks take weeks to train, some take just minutes.”

She should know. Ms. Martin’s cats, who will play one-hour shows from July 16 through 19 at the Muse Brooklyn, are trained to do highly non-catlike things: Tuna, the lead performer, rings a cowbell; Alley, who holds the Guinness World Record for longest cat jump (six feet), plies her specialty; Sookie pushes a shopping cart across the stage, unless she is distracted by shiny objects or finds the stage too warm, in which case she lies down.

The show ends with the Rock Cats, a six-piece band whose members play free-form on a miniature guitar, drum set and other instruments. Except when they don’t.

“I am pretty much at the mercy of what they want to do,” said Ms. Martin, who is in her late 40s and has been training animals from a tender age. The performance, she said, “is never the same, because the cats lead the show.”

Ms. Martin is based in Chicago but drives her circus around the country in a painted bus reminiscent of the Partridge Family’s. Until now, she has avoided New York for fear of maneuvering the bus in the city.

She got her start at 10, teaching simple tricks to her family’s yellow Labrador, Boots. As a teenager, she became enamored of rats.

“At one point, I had a rat trained to drive up to my dollhouse in a little tiny fire truck, go up a ladder, retrieve a doll and bring the doll down into an ambulance,” Ms. Martin said. But her first attempt at a pet circus, the Amazing Acro-Rats, was not a commercial success, for obvious reasons. “I couldn’t make a living with rats,” she said.

Then Ms. Martin migrated to fowl. “I had a chicken that played the piano, a duck that played the drums and a goose that played the guitar” using their beaks, she said. “Poultry is remarkable to work with — they learn very quickly.” But along came avian flu, and people stopped turning out to see this act.

Ms. Martin switched to cats roughly 10 years ago, training shelter cats that she adopted and fostered. All the performers are her pets. When they are not jumping through hoops, climbing ropes or pushing wheelbarrows onstage, Ms. Martin’s cats are prized by television directors and have appeared in commercials for brands like Target and Purina.

“My cats are excellent on set,” Ms. Martin boasted. “They just move in — they are accustomed to the stage.”

Part of her message is familiar in cat adoption circles: Friendlier shelter cats are more appealing to potential owners. Since 2009, Ms. Martin said, she and her two assistants have trained 159 foster cats, often teaching them to give humans a high-five or to jump through a hoop, to make them more adoptable.

“So many cats end up in shelters because they have behavioral problems, and most behavioral problems are due to boredom,” Ms. Martin said. “If you train your cat to do tricks, you make them use their brains. I hope to encourage people to expect more of their cats.”

Dr. Carlo Siracusa, a veterinarian specializing in behavior medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School’s Ryan Hospital, said that while cats do not need to be trained — and some need less stimulation than others — there is no harm in teaching them tricks as long as no punishments are involved. (Some Russian cat circuses have drawn controversy for the way they treat the animals.)

“Emotionally, it’s not bad for the cat” to be taught anthropomorphic tricks, Dr. Siracusa said. “One ethical thing is whether it’s appropriate to watch animals mimicking human behavior, but I don’t really think that a cat cares about this. The action for the cat, playing on an instrument, it’s not fun, but they’re waiting for the treat.”

One of his students, Dr. Siracusa noted, has trained a cat to play dead when she points her finger like a gun and says “bang;” a video of this is posted on a Penn Facebook page. Like all such tricks, it brings to mind the Samuel Johnson saying involving a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

At the end of Ms. Martin’s show, the musician cats play on, and the audience can mingle with the performers.

Angela Buccinni, director and founder of the Muse Brooklyn — a circus-oriented performance space that moved to Bushwick in April after losing its lease in Williamsburg — said she was looking forward to the show. “I know that we’ve had a ton of inquiries,” she said, “and that all of our managers are fighting over who is going to get to work this event.”

The Amazing Acro-Cats and Rock Cats will perform July 16 and July 17 at 8:00 p.m., July 18 at 5 and 8:00 p.m. and July 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. No cats are allowed in the audience; the Muse Brooklyn, 350 Moffat Street;


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