Acro-Cats leap into New Orleans: Cats can be trained, but they are shrewd negotiators. _lowres

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Nue paws the keyboard; Sookie plays the chimes. There’s Dakota on the drums. And Tuna tinkles a cowbell.

The Amazing Acro-Cats have rolled into town. Led by Samantha Martin, the “Chief Executive Human,” these furry celebrities — former orphans, rescues and strays — leap over candy canes, balance on delicate ornaments and push tiny shopping carts filled with colorful presents to the delight of feline fanciers everywhere they go.

On a serious note, their tour bus acts as a mobile fostering and adoption unit, while a portion of ticket sales will aid the Jefferson SPCA.

For the finale of their one-hour shows at the Marigny Theater, the Rock-Cats, a band composed of more than a dozen domestic shorthair cats, will perform a roundup of Christmas favorites with a twist, such as “Catnip Roasting on an Open Fire” and “’Twas the Night Before Catmas.”

Eight-month-old Nola, the latest addition to the group, strums the guitar with her claws. A chicken called Cluck Norris will delight the crowd with his flair for the cymbal and tambourine.

Alley — a spirited calico, who was recently awarded a Guinness Book of World Records title for the longest jump made by a cat (6 feet) — is especially eager to perform.

“You can see her pawing at the cage, waiting for her turn,” Martin said. “The more excited the people are, the better the cats do.”

Martin taught the cats how to “play” music and describes their sound as “free form jazz.”

Wearing a headband topped with fuzzy blue cat ears, Martin credits her success to clicker training, a method that pinpoints the exact moment of good behavior, which is then reinforced with a reward. But she also noted that despite what many humans think, cats have natural talent.

“These are my pets, so I spend a lot of time with them, watching them to see what they do,” she explained. “If I see a cat that is active and leaping, then I’m going to come up with tricks that involve leaping.”

“The cat is a misunderstood animal,” said Martin. “They are notorious for being difficult and uncooperative, but as an animal trainer, I know that’s not true.”

She emphasized that cats can be trained, despite contrary belief, but that they are shrewd negotiators. They expect a reward for every trick — unlike dogs, who work for affection, she says.

Martin’s uncanny connection with animals was revealed at age 10, when she trained the family dog. She later launched her career by training domestic rats, along with exotic animals, for television and film, later adding dogs and cats to the lineup.

About 10 years ago, Martin began fostering rescue cats and training them, which eventually led to the Amazing Acro-Cats. In 2009, the cats launched their first tour, away from their home base in Chicago.

Throughout the show, Martin will highlight the benefits of cat training. Because many felines are blamed for being indifferent, they often end up in a shelter. Over the past four years, Martin has found homes for nearly 150 cats and kittens.

“The Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter receives about 1,000 animals a month,” added Jacob Stroman, the programs director of the Jefferson SPCA. “This event sheds light on the plight of homeless pets that we have in our care.”

Stroman, who has two dogs and a cat, has seen the Acro-Cats show nine times. He trained his feline with one of Martin’s training kits, available for purchase at the performances.

“One of the coolest things about the show is how it brings people together that you would never see in the same room,” said Martin, noting that it is not uncommon to see an elderly couple sitting next to a leather-clad biker. “Animals bring out the best in people. I think that’s why the show has had so much success.”