Take a look at these cats: These are the Amazing Acro-Cats, which have skills that make even the cutest of house cats look like Garfield's fatter, more sarcastic cousins. The second I saw this photo, I wondered (and then doubted) whether my cat has similar chops — whether she's secretly a showcat whose inner talent has been stymied by my hectic schedule and aggressive cuddling. Maybe she was born for the bow tie!
So I called Acro-Cats owner/trainer/ringmaster Samantha Martin, and asked the question any cat owner dreams of asking the leader of one of the country's four touring cat shows: "Can you train my cat to be in the circus?"
Her answer: She could try. My cat is not one of her cats, she pointed out; working show cats have been trained their entire lives to perform under stage lights. My cat is also not a normal cat: Laika, a nine-month-old Munchkin, is a tiny-legged creature of wonder, but her strange breeding means that if she eats one extra meal, her white-speckled belly drags past her three-inch stumps. She is adorable but hardly graceful, and her short stature makes it impossible for her to turn on a light switch, roll a barrel or jump through a hoop any decent distance from the ground.
"Training a fully grown cat is like if I were to go to circus school to be a trapeze artist at my age," Martin warned. "It's not impossible, but it's certainly not easy."
By the time Martin came to my apartment to meet Laika, though, I'd convinced myself that my cat had a secret talent; I had only to call it out of her. Or enlist the help of a cat-whisperer to whisper it out of her.
The first step, according to Martin, is to pay attention to your cat and note what she already enjoys. You do not teach a cat to do a brand-new trick. You teach a cat to perform an unusual feat based on something she does already. If a cat enjoys batting at toys with her paws, for example, she might make a good guitar player. If she can sit still and focus, she might make a good chauffeur for the toy car that pulls your groundhog. (This is a real segment of Martin's act.)
My cat enjoys eating, meowing and nestling next to me like a hot-water bottle tucked into my sheets, I told Martin. Are any of those trick-worthy? Oh, and I read in an issue of Cat Fancy at the vet that Munchkins are good at sitting up.
This last feat, it turns out, can be modeled into what Martin and her cats call "sitting pretty," a trick in which one of the thirteen traveling cats (she owns twenty total, but seven stay at home with her performing rats) rises onto its hind legs and pushes out its paws. So we focused on that: By tempting Laika with baby food and guiding her with a stick, Martin initiated the first steps in Laika's eventual trek to stardom. But she seemed completely uninterested, and kept going back to sleep.
Martin uses the Clicker method to train her troupe of animals, which, at one time, included a kinkajou, a binturong and an alligator. With a small wooden stick, she indicates an action she'd like a cat to perform — first coming up to the stick, then jumping to the stick, then sitting down in front of it — and presses a clicker to reinforce the correct action, followed immediately by a bribe. Onstage, she carries six treat cups full of fresh tuna, bagged tuna, chicken, salmon, steak and baby food to accommodate her cats' wildly varied palettes. "There's a reason the phrase is 'like herding cats,'" jokes Martin.
Laika, it turns out, responds only to baby food, and only when it's placed a minimum of two feet from any human being. Even then, she requires copious napping breaks. Which means that Laika might be a diva. Martin began by feeding her when she approached the stick and then changed the rules midway, raising the stick and clicking only when Laika jumped to meet it. For three hours. The result is captured in this masterful video:
Et voila. Did you miss it? Here's a before-and-after shot:
In those four glorious seconds, Laika transformed her very nature and did something that was not napping, eating or looking idly adorable. She became a show cat, or an assistant show cat, or maybe just a cat who can perform one trick reasonably well at least part of the time. And that's how it all starts, says Martin, who has trained both a guitar-rocking, drum-slamming feline band called the Rock Cats and an entire Kitty City (the two parties do not get along).
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Living in Chicago right after college, Martin quit her job at a pet store the day two filmmakers came in looking for a rat that could climb into a box on cue. "I can make your rat climb into a box, talk on the phone, whatever you want," she promised. And she did: For years, the self-taught trainer worked as a rat expert for commercials and independent films ("every horror film needs a creepy rat scurrying scene," she insists) and made the rounds of shows such as Geraldo and Inside Edition. But "there's not a whole lot of money in rats," she says, "and there are already lots of dog trainers," so she chose the second most in-demand animal in film: the cat.
Between ads for Tidy Cats litter and Petstages toys, she and her troupe travel the country. In the early days — about ten years ago — Martin corralled her cats and put them to work on a meager setup comprised of two ladders and a rope rigged to stand upright with hand weights. Today, she buys all of her props at IKEA, which "makes the bets cat stands, though they don't advertise them as that," she admits. The troupe sold out its first theater five years ago, and today Martin and her assistant sell cat ears for feline fans before the act. Since 2009, Martin has fostered and found homes for more than ninety cats, which she brings in as kittens in her tiny band and offers for adoption at the end of her stint in each city.
"We've become a finely tuned machine," she says. "Or, well, sometimes we are." Depending on the show, a trick can easily turn into a nap or a fit, and if anyone in the audience is carrying catnip, her cast will leave the stage to search it out. "At times, they still really suck, but people like to see the cats screw me over. And I just have to remember: These are cats I'm working with, after all."