Amazing Acro-Cats

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach a cat.

Just ask Samantha Martin.

For two-thirds of the year, the Chicago trainer is on the road with The Amazing Acro-Cats — her one dozen felines plus a few extras — who can climb up ladders, jump through hoops, walk a high-wire, push a cart, roll on a barrel, ride on a ball, and even play in a band, The Rock-Cats.

“They do all sorts of amazing things,” Martin said by phone Tuesday from Austin, Texas. “The band has a cat on piano, a cat on drums, guitar, and now even a cat on chimes and cowbell, and a special guest chicken (named Gregory Peck) that plays cymbal and tambourines.”

Indiana Jones, the previous guest chicken, passed away recently, Martin said.

The extras in the cat show are kittens that Martin fosters. Feline rescue work is one of her passions.

“In 2009, I started fostering, because if you adopt the cat and then you find out it’s not the right one, oh no. I foster a litter at a time. I think I can make a difference here,” she said. “So I really got involved in fostering and I train the kittens up and I put them in the show, until they find their forever home.”

Martin just fostered her 100th kitty.

“We like to try to partner up with shelters, and incorporate an adoption event, or donate a portion of the proceeds (from the shows),” Martin said. This weekend’s show, in fact, will benefit Cat Haven Shelter.

Martin started her company 25 years ago with a cage of domestic rats that she trained to do a variety of tricks. She called them The Amazing Acro-Rats.

“And it turned out to be a really popular show. People were amazed and entertained and it enlightened people a lot about rats. We got quite a following,” she said.

Martin soon realized, though, that she couldn’t earn a living on just rats, so she expanded her team to include other animals, and changed its name to Rat Company and Friends.

“I also did some educational animal shows, and I kept adding animals until I had a full-scale zoo with like 40 different species, and we did petting zoos, and educational shows and libraries, schools,” she said.

At this point, however, Martin felt she was veering away from her first love, animal training.

“I really wanted to train animals for film and TV, advertising, commercials,” she said. “There’s a lot of dog trainers out there, but not a lot of cat trainers.” Some of her pets have been featured on bags of Friskies or boxes of Tidi-Cat, and on commercials.

Felines are just misunderstood, according to the trainer.

“Cats are notoriously hard to train, and it’s not that they’re hard to train, it’s that they’re hard to transport. You know, cats don’t like change basically, so to have a good working cat they need to be used to change and chaos and you have to socialize them heavily.”

In order to get her cat training name out there and secure jobs, Martin put together a cat show.

“People just loved the show right from the get-go, and it was very basic in the beginning. I started out in art galleries, took note of what the audience liked, how they responded. Then I moved on to theaters. Then I was going to a pet expo and decided to book some theaters along the way,” Martin said, explaining the process of getting to The Amazing Acro-Cats show she has today.

Surprisingly, Martin said training cats isn’t as daunting as it seems. Some tricks can take as little as a few minutes to teach.

“I use a clicker, a target stick and treats,” she explained, adding that cats’ short attention span means more than 10 minutes of training a day isn’t productive.

Some feats, such as playing a musical instrument, do take longer to master.

“Our original guitar player took about six months to train,” she said. Then that guitarist died of cancer.

“I’m training a new guitar player and the drummer hates the new guitar player, so there’s some conflict in the band right now. I’m training a backup drummer so that when the main drummer storms off the stage, we have a backup,” Martin explained with a chuckle.

The majority of the other tricks seen in the show can be taught in a few minutes to a few days, she said.

That all sounds nice, but you can’t leave out, much less figure out, the mood of a cat on a particular day.

“The show is a complete wildcard. I have no idea what’s going to happen every time I walk on that stage,” Martin said. “There’s cats that come out of their cage, and they jump through the hoop and just keep on going. And then I see them in the audience, just watching the show.”

Then there’s Wiki, one of the more professional cats in the group.

“He usually finishes his run, and after he pulls down the applause sign, then he usually goes and hangs out with the sound men,” she said. “Then I have one that likes to pick out somebody’s foot in the audience to sniff and then he’ll come back and do his trick. They all have their little glitches. They’re very like, ‘yeah, I’ll get to that in a second.’ They’re very unprofessional animals to work with. They just do things at their own pace, and sometimes they don’t feel like doing anything at all and they have that option. Their carriers are there.

“We just move on to the next cat, and sometimes they invent tricks in the middle of the show,” Martin said. “They’re always rewriting the show and not letting me know about it.”

Shows last about 75 minutes, and are followed by a meet and greet where the audience also can take photos and peruse merchandise for sale.

“A lot of people come see the show again and again, because they have their favorite cats that they like, and follow,” she said. They follow them on Facebook, and Buggles and Tuna both have Twitter accounts.”

Amazing.