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A Cat Circus: Great Idea or Greatest Idea?

Adam L. Brinklow | May 21, 2014 | Story Galleries and Performance

Clear your calendar, cancel all your meetings, and call in sick to work on Thursday: the cat circus is in town.

The Amazing Acro-Cats, a troupe of highly-trained feline daredevils who tour the country in a bus painted like a giant cat, will be at Fort Mason Center from May 22 through June 1. You're still reading? We assumed you'd kicked the door down, run out, and bought tickets as soon as you heard. We did. But if you still need convincing, read on.

Samantha Martin, owner and "chief human" of the Acro-Cats, is a professional animal trainer who started by drilling a pet rat back in military school. Her act began as a campaign to prove that cats could learn tricks after all. "It started with just a tightrope and some stools in an art gallery. I figured it would be a good way to keep the cats active and social—and maybe get a little local following." Scoff if you will, but two years ago Martin and the cats played The Tonight Show.

Pavlovian conditioning is the key. Martin uses a clicker whenever she gives a cat a treat. Soon, the felines associate the sound of the clicker with the reward and when they hear it, do whatever yielded tuna the last time. That could be jumping through hoops, walking a tightrope, or even playing drums. (That same trick is how our editors keep us on deadline, actually.) Martin now has a lineup of five cat acrobats, a six-piece cat rock band (the Rock-Cats), and a groundhog who plays the gong.

She insists that putting the act together isn't even that hard. "I watch them develop from kittens. Are they natural jumpers? Do they like heights? I turn what they like to do into a trick. I could train cats all day." Of course, the performers do have their quirks. "Cats are temperamental rock stars. God help me if I overcook the salmon."

All of Martin's cats are shelter rescues, and she always has foster cats up for adoption. She's coming to San Francisco with a clutch of five bottle-fed kittens rescued from an abandoned car in L.A. that are all looking for a good home. She's placed over 130 cats with new families while touring, though now and then she'll keep one if it seems to have star quality. She also trains cats for TV and film. One of the most valuable skills a working model can have, she says, is to be a "plop cat"—a cat you can just plop down and will stay put during a photo shoot. It took us years to learn how to do that.

And the act is growing. Right now she's looking for a "smart, outgoing show cat who isn't a brown tabby" to round out the group. At times, she hears complaints about making the animals perform, but she points out that her stars sleep 18 hours a day—how else could they pass time on the tour bus? "If any animal was made for a touring show, it's a cat."

Tickets are still available, but they're going fast.

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