What do you call 14 cats? A circus


NEW YORK — Samantha Martin was anxious, and it wasn't because she was living in a bus with 14 cats, two white rats, a groundhog and a chicken named Cluck Norris. That's normal for her.

She was anxious because she had just three hours to prepare the felines, the fowl and the rodents for their first performance in New York City before a sellout crowd.

It was opening night at the circus. The Acro-Cats circus. As in cats jumping through hoops. Cats walking on high wires. Cats balancing atop balls. Cats riding skateboards, bowling, strumming guitars and pounding keyboards.

You might be asking: Can cats really be trained to do those things?

"You can train your cat to do everything these cats can do," said Martin, who formed the Acro-Cats in 2006. "Or not do."

They are, after all, cats.

"Cats tend to get distracted," Martin said.

On the bus: As she spoke inside the Acro-Cats bus, the occupants stirred to life after an afternoon snooze. The cats, who have their own space in the rear, began clawing the scratching posts and leaping among the cat trees. A blizzard of gray, orange, black and white filled the air. Paws skimmed the top of Martin's head, and tails swished in her face.

Cats raced up and down the 35-foot-long bus. They leapt onto the bedding lining the sides and sank their claws into its softness. A puffy gray cat sat silently atop a kitty litter container, watching with the wide-eyed yet bored expression only a cat can muster.

Trainer: Martin got into the cat circus business the usual way: Her rat circus didn't pan out.

She had dreamed of becoming an animal trainer and was charmed by rats when, as a girl growing up in Illinois, she saw the 1970s rat-centric movies "Willard" and "Ben."

"I just thought, wow, that's the most awesome thing ever," said Martin. Her big break came while she was working at a pet store in the Chicago area. Two men came in looking for a rat trainer for a movie they were filming. Martin quit her job and took on the role. She doesn't know if the movie was made, but the gig persuaded her to start the Acro-Rats circus.

"But rat movies are few and far between," Martin said. She needed a more appealing creature to draw crowds and to train for movies, TV and advertising.

The cats: That's about the time a white cat with sea-green eyes named Tuna came into her life. Tuna responded to Martin's training clicker and treats, quickly learning to swat at things on cue and to ring a bell with her paw.

A salmon-loving star was born.

Martin began working with other cats, all rescued from shelters or the streets, and she catered the circus to each cat's talents and temperament.

Alley is a jumper, leaping between platforms and officially recognized by the Guinness World Records book as making the longest jump by a cat — 6 feet. An orange-and-white cat named Buffy walks across the stage atop a ball. Buffy's sister Sookie pushes a tiny shopping cart.

Others perform high-wire acts, crawl up and down poles and swat at signboards for audiences who sigh "Awwwwww" each time a cat saunters on stage or loses interest in the show and wanders into the crowd.

The New York premiere in July was the first of several shows, all sold out, at an event space in Brooklyn.

The show: The bus, with a large cat face painted on its front, was parked outside the warehouse where the circus would take place.

In fron of the audience, a cat scampered up a pole, then came back down and landed expertly atop Martin's back. Another jumped onto a purple ball and rolled it across the stage.

Martin interspersed mini-lectures on cat care and cat adoption throughout the show. She noted that all her cats are trained to run into their carriers when she whistles, something that could save a pet if a situation required quick evacuation.

Martin does not sugarcoat the challenges of running the Acro-Cats show. Before New York, they performed in Philadelphia. Next spring, the circus will be on the West Coast. By then, Martin hopes to have replaced the 1963 bus, which she bought with $30,000 raised on Kickstarter.

Martin dreams of an RV with expandable sides. More room, she said, for the cats.