People who use the phrase “like herding cats” for some seemingly impossible task have never seen Samantha Martin’s Amazing Acro-Cats.
Using fresh ahi tuna and a clicker, Martin trained fourteen house cats to walk on tight ropes, jump through hoops, strum guitars and bang drum sticks. It’s not exactly herding, but it’s pretty close.
Even so, there are times during an Acro-Cats show when the stars wander into the audience, stretch out on the stage, or rub their head against the seats.
“My cats are slackers, they lay down on stage, they go in to the audience when they feel like it,” said Martin, who is based in Chicago. “They are cats, after all.”
The Amazing Acro-Cats will bring their act and wandering ways to Portland’s St. Lawrence Arts Center Thursday. They’ll perform through Sunday and Aug. 13 through 16.
Because St. Lawrence seats 110 people, audience members will be as close as 5 feet and never as far as 50 feet from the trained-yet-independent felines. People who spend hours watching funny cat videos on YouTube will get a chance to see funny cat antics in person.
Martin has been doing the Acro-Cats shows for about ten years. It’s a unique niche that keeps her busy. She’s been on the road with the Acro-Cats, living in a 1963 General Motors bus with them, since November.
Martin draws big crowds wherever she goes, at least partly because most people don’t think cats can be trained, and want to see for themselves.
“People think you can’t train cats, that cats are too independent and indifferent,” said Martin. “But if they know there’s something in it for them, they can be trained. Plus they like the challenge. It’s like stalking birds. If a cat’s indoors all the time they get bored.”
Martin said she began training cats because of an abandoned kitty she rescued named Tuna. Tuna seemed to be very attentive and focused, so Martin started trying to train her. She trains all her cats using the same method, involving a clicker and really good treats.
A click with a prompt for the cat to follow a “target stick” is rewarded when they do it. From there, she moves to rewarding them for jumping or doing other tricks.
She sells DVDs that explain her training method that includes high-grade ahi tuna and fresh salmon as rewards. Using her clicker method, she gets her cats to do all sorts of things. Tuna, the inspiration and star of the show, is a fluffy white cat that rings a cowbell in the Rock Cats band and can jump hurdles. Asti, a striped female, can bang drumsticks (on levers) to something resembling a beat. Buggles, a thin black female, can ride a skateboard and balance on a basketball. Pudge, a gray kitty with plush fur, can jump through a hoop. Other cats can walk on tightropes, turn on lights, or weave between Martin’s legs as she walks.
Watch these cats in action
The show usually lasts for about an hour. The finale is a performance by the Rock Cats band, though it’s not all cats. A chicken named Cluck Norris is part of the show too, pecking out a beat on cymbals and tambourine. The chicken is named for Chuck Norris, martial arts expert and action movie hero.
“The cats are afraid of the chicken. If I drop some food between the cats and the chicken, that chicken will peck them right in the middle of the head,” said Martin.
The Rock Cats, it should be noted, don’t sound very good. They sound, as you might expect, like cats pawing at instruments.
Martin said she began training the family dog when she was ten. She once owned a business where she put on a show with trained rats, though the cats have a broader appeal.
She remembers always wanting to be with animals as a child, but her parents limited the number she could have. They told her that once she grew up and had her own house, she could have as many as she wanted.
So now she spend much of the year in a bus with at least 14 cats. Martin, who donates part of ticket sales to cat rescue groups, often picks up strays or unwanted cats on the road as well.
“I wake up covered in cats, and get to spend all day with the animals I love,” said Martin. “I feel very lucky.”
Likes: Training and show time, sunning herself on top of the fax machine, ringing her bell.
Dislikes: Sharing, being nice, anyone invading her space.
Signature trick: Ringing her bell and encouraging donations to the tip jar.
Little-known fact: Once rang her bell for ten minutes straight until someone gave her a treat.
Likes: Ceiling fans, playing fetch, supervising the office staff.
Dislikes: Pinky, a fellow Acro-Cat, and team sports.
Signature trick: Riding a skateboard.
Little-known fact: Fur has barely-visible marks, so she’s not a true black cat.
Likes: Being on stage.
Dislikes: Not being able to explore where ever she wants.
Signature trick: Pushing a ride-on toddler cart.
Little-known fact: Asti has been caught trying to steal whole chicken breasts.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday; Also runs Aug. 13-16
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $20
INFO: circuscats.com for tickets and show info; stlawrencearts.org for venue info