Getting cats to fly through the air, speed down a ramp on a skateboard or strum a guitar is just another day at the office for Samantha Martin.
And for the next 10 days or so her office will be on stage at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland, where her Acro-Cats will be performing. The traveling 16-cat troupe will be the star attraction there from Thursday through Aug. 20.
Martin gets her cats to walk tightropes, jump through hoops, balance on balls and do lots of other things you wouldn’t think independent-minded felines would agree to. And just in case audience members don’t think the cats are doing their own stunts, or that maybe they are computerized or something, Martin lets people come onstage and meet the kitty stars in person.
“I know people always think cats aren’t capable of learning things like this, but I think we (she and the cats) are helping to change that,” said Martin, who also trains her cats for work in TV commercials and photo shoots. “I think cats deserve the same opportunities as dogs.”
Martin began taking her Acro-Cats on the road in 2009, living with them for months at a time in a 1963 General Motors bus. She had that old bus when she and the cats played Portland in 2015. But the act became popular enough that Martin has been able to raise $150,000 with a Kickstarter campaign to buy a much newer and larger bus, an “entertainer” coach, specifically designed for traveling performers. And rock stars.
Watch the Acro-Cats in action:
Martin has been training animals since childhood. She’s been a personal dog trainer and a zookeeper and has trained animals for film work. She also takes in and fosters lots of animals, and that’s how she started training performing cats.
She rescued a cat named Tuna, who seemed particularly focused and attentive. So Martin thought she could be trained. She developed a method, which she uses for all her cats. She uses a clicker to make a noise, then moves a target stick for the cats to follow. When they do, they get a food treat. After a while, they will follow the sticks onto skateboards, tight wires or through hoops. In the show, Tuna’s main tricks became jumping hurdles and ringing a cowbell.
Tuna passed away earlier this year, Martin said, but two new kitties named Ahi Tuna and Albacore Tuna joined the troupe to try to fill her “paws.”
A highlight of the one-hour show is The Rock Cats band, with cats on stage pawing at various levers that allow them to make sounds on guitars, drums, piano, clarinet and a host of other instruments. There are usually seven cats in the band. Don’t expect perfect pitch or great musicianship, Martin says.
“It’s really more of a noise band, very experimental, sort of like free-form jazz,” Martin said.
Played by some real hep cats.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Aug. 17-19; 4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, Aug. 19, 20; 1 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 20.
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $22, $37 VIP