Acro-Cat-ics dazzle Chicago

By Trevor Ballanger

Circuses often bring to mind bears, lions and elephants, but Chicago’s own Acro-Cats is proving pussy performers can be just

as captivating.

Ringleader and trainer Samantha Martin’s unique troupe of 13 housecats has been jumping through hoops, pretending to play musical instruments and ringing bells around the country for the past seven years.

The feline stars have been trained to perform tasks in exchange for treats. When the sound of a clicker is paired with a treat, the cats understand they’ve done something that warrants a reward. Martin said the method is often used for training dogs but has proven useful in getting the troupe to perform tricks, which is why she had the idea to take them on tour five years ago.

Many of her shows are held in 500-seat theaters and often sold out. Martin attributes her success to her humane method of training. Because the cats are crate trained, they will run to their crates at the sound of a whistle, which can be useful in emergencies, she said.

The cats take time during performances to interact and become familiar with the audience. Martin said her cats have individual personalities that respond differently to each audience. One cat has a habit of entering the audience and sniffing people, while another prefers to be petted after the show.

“There’s no punishment involved,” Martin said. “The cats are in charge. They do things in their own time. A lot of times I have to come up with some witty banter to cover the blank spots as we wait for the cats to get it together. They basically act like you would think a cat would act, and then all of a sudden they do this amazing trick. People love that aspect.”

Martin said she’s never had a problem with animal rights activists protesting her show, but some people have questioned her methods. Valerie Chalcraft, an animal behaviorist at Applied Animal Behavior, a behavioral consulting firm for animal owners, said Martin’s way of training is beneficial to animals because it stimulates them and keeps their temperaments balanced.

Chalcraft said she is a Darwinist, so her methods of animal treatment include applying human psychology to animal training with stimulus/response techniques. According to her, animals are less likely to have anxiety and get into trouble if they are engaged with these mental exercises.

“We can sit in front of a computer for three hours and be exhausted by the end of it, even though we haven’t physically moved much,” Chalcraft said. “The same goes with cats. Often we’ll make cats work for their meals. All species of animals can benefit from this. We’ll put food in food puzzles and the cat has to figure out how to get the food. It keeps them busy, it keeps their minds working and they can even gain confidence.”

In the tradition of keeping Acro-Cats humane, Martin also houses foster cats and occasionally incorporates them into the show. Dr. Robyn Barbiers, president of Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society, said fostering animals is one way to end inhumane animal treatment and is an alternative to euthanasia. The society shelters 4,000–5,000 cats and dogs per year.

Barbiers said cats are more likely to become feral than dogs because of their much larger population and lack of reproductive sterilization. According to her, the society currently houses 540 cats and 100 dogs, a ratio that has reversed during the last

20 years.

“[People] feel that cats are more disposable than dogs,” Barbiers said. “I think some of it is people don’t realize cats can have kittens when they’re five months old, so they haven’t gotten their [female] cats spayed when she goes into heat. It’s unfortunate, because they have a much harder time in a shelter than a dog.”

Martin said her cats will be able to be adopted once the tour is over because she wants to promote animal rescue. Most of her performing cats are orphaned rescues and strays adopted from foster homes around the city. She said she also trains nonperforming cats for immediate adoption.

“Somehow they made their way to my doorstep,” Martin said. “It’s giving back a little bit. I try to draw people into their cat’s lives. These cats are all individual and unique.”

Martin launched a Kickstarter campaign Sept. 18 to raise money for a new tour bus. The Acro-Cats can be seen at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Sept. 26–Oct. 10.