It's hard to get a cat to pee in a box, let alone do a trick, but the 150 "fluffy artists" at the "world's only" cat theater in Moscow are only too willing to roll barrels, walk tight-ropes, and climb poles. The feats are unlikely enough that animal rights activists have accused the theater's clowns of forcing the cats to perform them, and the troupe's tours abroad have sparked protests.
But the theater's directors vigorously deny these allegations. "No matter how many collars you put around [a cat's] neck, you will only cause stress. Then it will never go on stage," director and lead clown Dmitry Kuklachyov told VICE News.
The Kuklachyov Cat Theater was founded by Dmitry and his father Yury in 1990 in a former movie theater on Moscow's Kutuzovsky Prospect, kitty-corner from the apartment building where Soviet leaders including Leonid Brezhnev and Yury Andropov lived. Before that, Yury had been incorporating cats, which were thought to be untrainable, into his routines at the Soviet State Circus. The cat theater now has more than 150 cats and four dogs in its four-legged cast.
Yury was already a minor celebrity from television shows and movies, and the theater quickly became a well-known attraction in Russia and beyond, touring abroad to such far-flung locales as New York and Blackpool. Among the 200-some audience members at a recent weekend show was a family from Japan and a couple from China, who said they had come from Guangzhou specifically to see the cats.
The Kuklachyovs are now some of the best-known children's entertainers in the country, and Yury lives in a four-story mansion in an elite cottage compound that once held the country houses of the Soviet leadership, with a bust of himself in the window, Sobesednik newspaper found during a visit.
Asked about criticism that the theater is exploiting cats for financial gain, Dmitry said ticket prices are kept to a minimum (the most expensive ticket is 2,000 rubles, or $25), adding that the theater would have been forced to close if then-mayor Yury Luzhkov hadn't agreed to make it a state enterprise in 2005. The city of Moscow has invested in it, allocating 50 million rubles, then about $1.8 million, to build the "cat temple" on the second floor in 2011, where viewers can observe the performers behind glass.
That the theater has survived for a quarter-century in a rented building in one of Moscow's prime real estate areas — Kutuzovsky lies along the route between the Kremlin and the Rublyovka residential area where Vladimir Putin and much of Russia's elite live — is testament to Yury's tenacity and high-level connections.
In 2007, the city architecture committee signed an order to relocate the theater, and shortly thereafter agents from the interior ministry's economic crimes division raided it on a complaint that Yury was embezzling money, he told Sobesednik. He said the agents didn't find evidence of wrongdoing.
The clown turned to his old friend Iosif Kobzon, a singer known as "Russia's Frank Sinatra," who was banned from the European Union last year after he sang a duet with the leader of pro-Russian separatists during a concert in eastern Ukraine. (He has been de facto banned from the United States since 1995 for suspected ties to the Russian mafia.) Kobzon, also a member of parliament, campaigned to help the Kuklachyovs keep their location, Yury told the news site Segodnia.ru.
The theater typically gives several performances a week, and a recent matinee included everything you might expect from a clown show: face make-up, circus music pumping through the speakers, a drummer accenting the punchlines with snare rolls, and male clowns dressed in drag. At the performance attended by VICE News, the cats' main job was initially to accent the clowns' stunts, but the animals' antics gradually grew in scope.
Cats climbed up and across long poles, pushed small buckets on their hind legs, and in the climax, jumped from high platforms into Dmitry's arms. While no cats were harmed in the show, dozens of kids surely left the theater with new ideas of how to torture their own house pets.
Pensioner Yelena Kolikhayeva, who was at the performance with her five-year-old grandson Matvei, said she once studied at a circus institute and didn't think there was any "harshness" in the show. "If a cat doesn't want to do a trick, they don't force it," she said.
But animal rights activists have long protested at what they see as the exploitation of cats at the theater. Activists picketed outside performances during a 2010 tour of Israel, with signs reading, "For you, two hours of entertainment, for them, a whole life of torment." In 2015, several local organizations called for a boycott of Kuklachyov theater performances in Estonia, arguing that such animal shows are inhumane.
Veterinarian Nikolai Loginov, who treated the Kuklachyovs' cats in his clinic in the theater until Yury kicked him out during a dispute in 2007, told VICE News that the elder Kuklachyov had kept cats hungry so they would do tricks for food. Although the clown is fond of saying he trains cats "with love," Loginov said he had been present at one rehearsal where the clown put nooses around cats' necks to teach them to sit on high platforms. "If it jumped, then it hung there and couldn't get air," Loginov said.
He also alleged that in the early years of the theater, Kuklachyov had been reluctant to spay or neuter his cats, which Loginov said would be healthier for them, and had kept them in cages that the veterinarian thought were too small. According to Loginov, other theater employees told him that Kuklachyov once had a group of older cats put to sleep.
Dmitry Kuklachyov said the theater doesn't spay or neuter its cats because it wants them to reproduce. But he denied that his cats had been put to sleep or trained with hunger, violence or force, arguing that this would only result in cats refusing to do tricks. The 20 glass enclosures in the theater where the cats live, each of which is 85 square feet, were spotless and clean-smelling when VICE News visited.
In an interview after the show, Dmitry was protective of his cats, warning a photographer that he wouldn't make them do a trick more than once, so they will continue to see it as a game and won't tire themselves out, he said. The training process starts with months of just playing with the cats, figuring out the single trick that each will perform, he added.
"You can't force a cat. My job is to see the specialty, the spark that is inside it and develop that. You see, I already can see that this one can roll a little barrel," Dmitry said, gesturing to a cat that had gotten up on its hind legs as he approached, pawing at the glass.
Audience members said they weren't worried about cat abuse at the venue. Svetlana Zhamalova, who was visiting from the Siberian city of Yeniseysk with her five-year-old cat-loving daughter Ksenia, said there was "obviously no harm for the cats."
"It's visible that the actors love them," she said, "and the cats run around their legs, which means they love their masters."
All photos by Julie Hrudová. Follow her on Twitter: @Julie_Hrudova
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn