Cats play guitar, tap bells, ride skateboard in circus act

CHICAGO, Mira Oberman- Reaching up with her front paws, the little white cat grabs the green pole and pulls herself upside down and backwards across the stage.
She gobbles her treat then stands on her hind legs to push a toy cart after a fluffy Siamese rushes over to sit on it.
It's a perfect rehearsal for the Acro-Cats circus.

Cats play guitar, tap bells, ride skateboard in circus act
But once the audience fills into the small Chicago theatre, Isis keeps missing her cues.
"C'mon Isis. C'mon. One more try," her trainer begs, then gives a resigned sigh.
"Okay, lets hear it for her anyways."
The audience laughs, claps and leans forward to see the next trick.
They aren't disappointed.
A black cat rolls a basketball across parallel bars with its front paws. A tabby rides a skateboard down a ramp. A grey cat jumps through hoops. A white cat and a chicken have a bell ringing contest.
The chicken wins.
Three years after she first launched her cat circus, Samantha Martin has learned a lot about public humiliation and filling up dead air with self-deprecating jokes.
"Cats are the most unprofessional animals I've ever worked with," she says after one sloppily performed trick.
"We've literally had shows where we wanted to sneak out the back door in the middle of it and leave the cats behind."
--- Audiences can't get enough of it --
But despite the finicky nature of the cats she affectionately calls her "divas" -- or maybe because of it -- audiences can't get enough.
Her Chicago shows are routinely sold out, and the Gorilla Tango Theater has been steadily adding performances.
She's landing more gigs on the road, driving her menagerie to Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana in a mobile home stuffed with props, costumes and built-in cages.
"Everyone just thinks it's the cutest thing in the world and everyone wants to talk about their cats," says Kelly Williams, marketing coordinator for Gorilla Tango Theater.
Jeffrey Husserl and his family -- whose two cats won't even come when they're called -- were amazed to see what the Acro-Cats would do.
The best part: when a trio called the Rock Cats slipped out of their crates and began plucking at a toy guitar, tapping on a drum set and playing piano.
"I loved it. It was a lot of fun," Husserl says while his wife buys one of Martin's home training kits and his two sons get a closer look at the kitties.
"I liked the spontaneity of it. I liked the fact that sometimes the cats didn't want to do things and sometimes they did."
Martin says any animal can be trained -- even a goldfish.
It's all a matter of positive reinforcement (i.e. treats), clear direction (a clicker and pointer are key), repetition and patience.
Cats don't really like to lie around the house, she says. They're smart animals who need stimulation and teaching them tricks is a great way to keep them entertained.
Her cats pester her to practice, zipping over to their instruments or props whenever she walks nearby and plucking away until she hands over treat after treat.
But even with more than 20 years experience as an animal trainer, "you can't make a cat do anything," Martin says as the Rock Cats practice their set on her kitchen table.
"Chickens. Total professionals to work with. Cats. Not so much. They've got to groom," she says, as she lifts her shoulder to her cheek in imitation.
"Oh what's that noise? The door opened? What was that? Is they're someone behind there? They're constantly distracted."
--- She got her start training rats --
Martin got her start training rats.
Her big break came in 1989 when a local television station did a story on Chicago's very own "Rat Lady" after she landed her first movie gig by offering to work for free.
She got invited to talk shows -- Geraldo, Jay Leno, even a show in Italy -- and was soon landing every movie gig that came to town.
There weren't many, unfortunately, so she put together a rat circus. But she never managed to make much money at it.
"It hit a stopping point because there's a lot of people that are turned off by rats."
So she expanded into exotic animals -- snakes, alligators, lizards, small bears, ground hogs, possums -- and started doing educational shows, corporate events, birthdays.
Until she realized she'd strayed away from her real ambition: training animals for film.
She decided to specialize in cats because she likes animals with attitude and cats make you earn their affection.
But she soon found out that cats get nervous during gigs -- listed on if they don't work consistently.
So she started doing the show. And her collections of cats grew. And grew.
Martin doesn't like to admit to exactly how many cats she shares her home with.
It's more than 20, which she readily admits is enough to ensure she'll never get married.
Not that she really wants to get married.
Men cost too much to feed, she jokes.

Monday, April 20th 2009
Mira Oberman

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