To get it out of the way: yes, cats can be trained. That is the premise of the Amazing Acro-Cats, a traveling cat circus out of Chicago whose fourteen feline members leap, climb, push, roll, and thwack at least some of the times they are asked to, usually on the second or seventh request. That your cat can be trained, too, is a major thesis of the group: for $24, you can buy the Amazing Acro-Cats training kit, which includes a whistle and training clicker, a DVD with footage of the cats in action ("Over two hours long!" the Acro-Cats website exclaims), and a pamphlet with details on the achievements and temperaments of the Acro-Cats themselves.
"Cats are huge," said Samantha Martin, the founder and self-proclaimed "chief human" of the Acro-Cats. "Cats are in the spotlight, and we're really the only steady touring show out there."
Martin started her act at cat expos before taking the show on the road full time in 2009. The Acro-Cats have played everywhere from Phoenix and New Orleans to a rough part of Kankakee, Illinois, where an audience of two stayed with them after the show to make sure they weren't robbed. They have been profiled in the New York Times, the Times-Picayune, BuzzFeed, and Jezebel; star performer Tuna has run the circuit of local morning shows, playing the cowbell on airwaves from Memphis to Philadelphia.
This month, the Acro-Cats performed a nine-show run at the Muse, a former warehouse in Bushwick. The finale fell on a hot and humid Sunday and played to a sellout crowd of 200, sweat radiating upward into sequin cat-ear headbands and soaking through the hot pink cats on a neighbor's dress. At least one attendee was desperately allergic.
The audience watched as Martin and her three assistants, all dressed in purple leopard print and cat ears, attempted to wrangle a half-dozen felines into an orchestra for the show's climax: a tabby on guitar; a pretty white Turkish Angora mix named Dakota on drums; cats on keyboard, cowbell, and chimes; plus a groundhog on gong and a chicken, Cluck Norris, on cymbals. The ensemble is called the Rock Cats, because these are not people who miss opportunities for puns. They hit some stumbling blocks. That Sunday had a high of 93 humid degrees in New York City, and the Acro-Cats warehouse was warmer still. The groundhog declined to leave his carrier and attracted undue attention from one of the cats. The keyboardist gave up entirely, and was offered a bowl of water. A seventh cat, a petite black domestic shorthair named Buggles, watched sleepily from an eight-foot pedestal.
Martin did not miss a beat. That the performers follow orders somewhat idiosyncratically is a fact of life at the cat circus. After one cat was coaxed into jumping through a sheet of tissue paper, Martin waited for the applause to die down and then drawled, "Very impressive when you consider we've only been working on that for nine years."
Martin and her assistants kept at it, proffering chunks of tuna and chicken liver until every cat was more or less at its station and began to play — not music so much as a collection of clangs and thumps, the music a madman might make if he also lacked opposable thumbs.
The crowd went wild.
Martin and the Amazing Acro-Cats are on the road nine or ten months a year, driving back and forth across the country in a 1963 GM bus decked out with three-foot whiskers and a pink nose. Between shows, they stay in RV parks. The back of the bus is home to what Martin calls the master bedroom: a cabin fitted with ledges and stocked with toys where the cats live. Martin and two assistants sleep in the bus as well, on a pullout couch and a makeshift bed. In Bushwick, they parked the bus outside the warehouse and slept there.
"It's one of the best parts of the job," said Martin of quieter days. "I get to hang out with the cats and relax and sleep in, and wake up covered in cats."
Martin owns 12 of the 14 Amazing Acro-Cats. (The other two, including Alley, a calico who holds the Guinness World Record for longest jump by a cat — six feet — belong to assistants.) She has six more cats — retirees and a few who never quite took to tricks — that live year-round under the care of a roommate at Martin's home, on the northwest side of Chicago, which has giant cat eyes taped into the windows that face the street.
The Acro-Cats just wrapped up in Boston and are heading to Winter Island Park. It's one of Martin's favorite destinations, just steps from the sandy shores of an inlet called Cat Cove, which is located in—you might not be shocked to learn—Salem, Massachusetts. Once there, she'll set up a network of tents and tunnels for the cats, so they can get some time in the great outdoors. In the mornings, people come knock on the cat bus's door: Can we come in and see the cats?
And for the most devoted feline fans, the Acro-Cats are looking for a new assistant to join their travels.
"You know, it's odd," said Martin, "that there's not more people trying to run away with the cat circus."