When the Acro-Cats take the stage, there’s a different show every night.
Although Chicago trainer and emcee Samantha Martin has spent many hours training the cats, using a clicker and positive reinforcement, the felines themselves ultimately decide what tricks they will and won’t perform on any given evening.
Even the best-trained cats “are distractable,” she said.
But Martin has learned to cope with the troupe members’ whims and unscripted exits. If one of the four-legged divas refuses to come out of her dressing room (also known as her carrier) when it’s time to start the show well, it’s time to bring in an understudy.
Tuna, age 9, was Martin’s first student “and brilliant,” Martin boasts. “You could see the wheels turning.”
But despite her brains and grande dame status, she is just as likely to leave the stage or bat at her favorite cowbell as any one of the freshman felines. She’s even been known “to swat me on stage,” Martin says.
Martin is a professional trainer with a degree in animal husbandry. She originally started training cats for advertisements “because everyone trained dogs.”
It was an odd twist of fate that was the genesis of the Acro-Cats show.
Martin ran an educational show called Amazing Animals, and Tuna soon stole the limelight from her trained rat act and collection of exotic snakes and reptiles. “People were simply enthralled by trained cats,” she said.
Thus, she phased out her private licensed zoo so she could take her Acro-Cats on the road. Her SUV, which she calls Kitty City, is filled with luxurious cat beds and toys, as elegant as a rock star’s tour bus.
Martin chose to work with mixed-breed shelter refugees, strays, and orphans hand-fed since kittenhood. When she visits shelters on her talent scouting missions, she seeks out “the troublemaker, the dominant one, climbing up the bars of the cage, trying to get out. … They have more confidence. They’re fearless.”
At last count, she has 26 cats in her spacious apartment and five part-time employees to care for them while she’s touring with her act. Each feline is spayed or neutered “because there’s enough homeless cats out there without adding to it,” Martin said.
Of her current troupe, 10 are female and two are male. Females are cattier, Martin says, but better suited to stardom.
Guy cats “are the sweetest for sure, but females work harder,” she said. Even if they are divas.