Standing up on her hind legs, tail languidly snaking back and forth, Tuna the cat flips the page on a pink easel, revealing a sign that reads in bold block letters: "Welcome to the show." The audience squeals in delight, then bursts into laughter when she bats down the next page, cheekily demanding: "Applause."
That's just the beginning of the Amazing Acro-Cat circus, which will perform in Phoenix for two weeks beginning February 25.
During the show, organized to encourage people to adopt pets from local shelters and rescues, Tuna and her 13 feline colleagues also jump through garland covered hoops, balance on rolling balls, walk tightropes, and even play in a band called "The Rock Cats." All the performers are rescued orphans and strays.
"Their music is terrible," says Samantha Martin, the cat's trainer, who calls herself "chief executive human" of the operation. "But it's really amusing to see all these animals plucking at guitars, pinging at the piano, and playing the drums."
Martin describes The Rock Cat's style as "free form jazz meets noise band," but admits, with a giggle, "they just play whatever they feel like playing."
They are, after all, cats — animals so notorious for their disdain for direction that they inspired the cliche "hard as herding cats."
Martin insists, though, that cats' reputation as untrainable isn't entirely deserved (and her nationally touring show might just be pretty good proof).
"You just have to give them the right motivation," she says.
While a dog might do a trick simple to please its human, cats are more persnickety. For felines, it's got to be food, she says, because "they're more in it for themselves."
She trains the cats using a clicker. Martin lures them to do something, such as jumping through a hoop, then clicks just as they perform the desired behavior.
"They learn pretty fast that a trick equals a treat," she said. "I can have a kitten jumping from stool to stool in a matter of minutes."
Still, Martin acknowledges even well-trained cats like Tuna can be a bit unreliable.
"It's hard to put a choreographed show together with music when you have a cat that comes out and decides she wants to stretch before she does her trick," she says. "They go at their own pace. They're not a boom, boom, boom kind of animal."
To "encourage" the cats, Martin buys them extra special treats on performance days: poached human grade chicken breast, salmon, and tuna. She keeps the theater dark to eliminate distractions ("If somebody walks in with strange hair, the cat's going to be curious," she says.) and, then, "I just stand helplessly by."
Sometimes the cats wow the crowd and sometimes, as was the case when Stephen Colbert invited the troupe on the Late Show in November, they refuse to come out of their cages.
"When all else fails, I just try to think of witty things to say," Martin says.
Martin, who had previously worked as a zoo keeper and trained rats to perform in television commercials, founded the Amazing Acro-Cats 10 years ago after her neighbor asked her to watch her cat while she took a two-week trip to Poland. The neighbor never came back and the cat gave birth to a litter of three white fluff balls, including Tuna. She started training them and, before long, the troupe was road tripping around the country in a refurbished bus painted with cat whiskers.
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Martin describes the bus, which features a spacious playroom outfitted with plenty of perches and scratching posts for the cats, as a "mobile fostering unit." At the end of every show, Martin parades out a selection of cats in need of adoption. So far, the Amazing Acro-Cat show has found homes for 159 cats.
"I train them to do a trick first," she says. "Nobody can resist a kitten that gives you a high five when you walk in the door."
The Amazing Acro-Cats will perform at Playhouse on the Park 1850 N. Central Ave in Phoenix. For more information, visit circuscats.com.