As the 2018 holiday season begins, Samantha Martin is actively nesting.
“I found the perfect house, and we’re cat-ifying the whole thing,” she says with enthusiasm over the phone, just after Thanksgiving. “It’s going to be a cat paradise when we’re done with it. The outdoor portions will be completely enclosed with screen, screened in with a roof with grass planted over it, so it’ll be completely enclosed, but they’ll be able to be a little closer to nature. We’re going to have some outdoor catwalks that will lead to a garden area … we had a sunroom, so we converted that to a cat room, and then we made a tunnel that led to the screened porch. And we fortified the screened area, so nothing can get in other than the occasional moth.”
About 16 cats are in residence at Meowy Manor, about an hour south of Atlanta, when Martin is at home. That number includes animals who actively perform in the Amazing Acro-Cats and the Rock Cats band — the traveling troupe for which Martin serves as self-designated Chief Executive Human — as well as cats who have retired from entertaining and a revolving population of foster kittens that she works to adopt, often in partnership with shelters from various cities that she stops in on tour.
“Every kitten that we adopt out is carrier-friendly — they’re all trained to go into their carrier — and each kitten knows how to do a basic trick,” Martin says. “Because we don’t want any of those cats to ever end up in a shelter, and nobody’s going to give up a cat that high-fives them when they come home from work.”
Not counting cats who act in movies and television (which is a sideline of Martin’s: the move to the Atlanta area from her longtime home in Chicago was spurred in part by the increase in film production activity there) the Acro-Cats, in business since 2005, are pretty much the pinnacle of feline showbiz in the U.S. today.
Martin’s cats climb and leap (Alley, a Chicago rescue on her team, set the Guinness World Record for longest cat leap in 2015 — 6 feet between platforms). They balance on rolling cylinders and balls, shimmy between bars, slide down ropes and jump through hoops, decked out in sparkly accessories that complement Martin’s own bedazzled kitty ears onstage. In training novice animals to perform, she keeps an eye out for their particular preferences or special skills; cats who are more paw-focused, for example, do well in the Rock Cats band, pounding a tiny keyboard or batting at levers that work drumsticks.
Martin grew up in the small town of Princeton, Illinois. As a kid, she says, she was a “misfit toy” — more comfortable around pets than people. “I begged for kittens since I was old enough to talk,” she remembers. Her first, Stocking, was a Christmas gift when she was 6 years old; a second, Trouble, followed soon after. Recently, she re-read an old family Christmas letter in which her parents noted her growing fascination. “It says, oh, she’s asking for a cat again,” she says. “Always asking for a cat.”
Although she was shy and a little eccentric, Martin was drawn to performing as long as she wasn’t alone in the spotlight. She participated in choir and band, took small parts in school plays and later played keyboards in a rock band.
“The keyboard player’s kind of in the background, not right up front getting energy from the crowd,” she says.
In college, she started out as a psychology major — “which is pretty relevant, because animal training is very psychology-oriented, it’s operant conditioning” — but decided to switch tracks from human to animal minds, and eventually earned an associate’s degree in wildlife education.
In the late 1980s, armed with her degree and a few internships, she tried for a job with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, the brass ring for aspiring animal trainers, but got offered a receptionist job instead. “I trudged all the way out to the fairgrounds where they were set up,” she says, “and they’re like ‘Oh, we don’t take women.’” (Ringling Bros., which shut down in 2017 after nearly 150 years, did employ at least a few women trainers over the years, including the famed 1920s big-cat tamer Mabel Stark, whose 1938 autobiography was titled “Hold That Tiger” — though most seem to have been part of husband-and-wife or family teams.) So Martin went into show business on her own, with an animal that would perhaps surprise fans that know her as a cat person.
“I had rats in college, because they were easier,” she says. “Easier to maintain, and super smart. I was like the original rat lady.”
In the 1980s, Martin and her rat circus traveled the country and appeared on MTV, “Geraldo” and even game shows like “To Tell The Truth.” One Christmas season, she experimented with introducing a cat into the mix.
“The audience was there, and the curtain parted, and the cat was just like ‘Oh no, no, no,’” she remembers. “It just ran across the stage and the little rats in the Santa sleigh just flew everywhere. And I didn’t even try to use another cat in my show for probably eight years.”
By the early 2000s, Martin became interested in the business of training animal actors. Cats, she says, are the second most-requested animal in that business (dogs are first) and cats she had — at that time, only four or five, but it was a start. From her studies and her experience, she was skilled at clicker training, the positive-reinforcement method that animal professionals agree works well across various species.
“I had a cat named Tuna at that point who was the inspirational star,” Martin says. “She was bomb-proof. I mean, I could take her anywhere and she would just be like, ‘whatever,’ and just do her thing. And people were amazed at this cat that does stuff. So that’s when I decided that I would put that whole show together.”
Martin and Tuna found an art gallery that let them workshop the evolving show — experimenting to figure out different cats’ interests and skills and importantly, getting them comfortable in front of crowds. Cats are alert to distractions from behind or off to the side, so a solid back wall or curtain helped them focus. So did a tarp she brought from home to roll out over venue stages, so that the nearest smells would be as familiar as possible. “So they’re like, ‘Oh, we know this floor. We know those curtains,” Martin says. “I basically took part of my home with me when I started training them out and about. And they just kind of taught me how to train them and what their needs were.”
When she tours — and for several years, the Acro-Cats spent three-quarters of each year traveling — having two or three days in each city is ideal; it’s enough time for the performers to acclimate to a venue, but not enough time for them to get bored. When that happens, cats can go off-script. “They want to explore,” Martin says. “They’re a little unprofessional. They’re like ‘Oh, hold on — there’s something over here, we’ve got to go check this out.” (Indeed, part of the show’s charm isn’t just cats doing tricks, but cats not doing tricks.) And if there isn’t time to inspect and cat-proof a space, patching enticing holes and closing off possible egress, the same sorts of pitfalls are likely.
“We had a cat that went under a stage and came back with a big giant roach in the middle of the show,” Martin recalls. “Started playing with it onstage. Flinging it up in the air, batting it around. The show came to a screeching halt, because I had to eventually get the roach and throw into her carrier to get her to go back.”
As the traveling show preps to head out for its December three-week stand at the All Ways Lounge in New Orleans, Martin also is dealing with another curveball. The Acro-Cats spent much of 2018 on hiatus following her cancer diagnosis early that year (as of November, according to a tweet from one of the cats’ personal accounts, the Chief Executive Human is now cancer-free). Martin kept busy during the enforced downtime in part by helping bottle-feed orphaned kittens for a local rescue, but she wasn’t able to remain as active as usual with the performers, “so some of the newer cats are a little bit off their game,” she says. “Some of them gain some weight, and some of them are like ‘Oh, I don’t remember this at all.’” The long New Orleans stop, she hopes, will get the team back into shape.
Being out of work is rough for a freelance artist. A GoFundMe account to help with her medical costs and expenses met its goal in the first week, which helped a lot both financially and with morale. “I was like, ‘Ah, man! Now I have to live,’” she says. “Knowing that we touched so many lives, that there were so many fans of these cats. And, I guess, of myself.”
The animal act has a long lineage in American entertainment. During vaudeville’s heyday, performing pets regularly shared bills with magicians, tap-dancers, adagio teams, comics and contortionists. Cats were less common than dogs, birds and rats, but still appear in the historical record: There was Swain’s Rats and Cats (“Household Pets and Pests in Perky Pranks”) rumored to have shared bills with the just-starting-out Marx Brothers in the 1910s, for one, and the German-born George Techow’s Wonderful Performing Cats, from the same era, which walked tightropes and jumped through rings of fire. “He gave a lot of interviews early in the 20th century chiefly because the public was interested in his secrets, it being so difficult to train a cat,” wrote the variety-show historian Trav S.D., author of “No Applause — Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.”
The reinvention of sideshow and burlesque acts in the alt-performance world in the late 1980s and 1990s opened up a new avenue for animal actors, too — the Acro-Cats and Rock Cats mostly perform in indie music clubs and hip art spaces. And the explosion of online pet culture hasn’t hurt one bit. The Acro-Cats feed fans’ appetites for cat content with a YouTube channel, an Instagram account and a Facebook fan club page, as well as individual Twitter accounts for troupe members Jax, Oz and Buggles — and Tuna, the original Acro-Cat, who passed away in early 2017.
Inasmuch as it is ever a good time to be an independent artist on the fringe, it is not a bad time to be one working in the feline medium (meowdium). But Martin has a bigger message that she hopes to transmit: with apologies to Trav S.D., training cats is not as difficult as their reputation would lead you to believe, and in fact, a little effort pays off "expawnentially." If you want a fit cat, an active cat, an intellectually sharp cat or even simply a more loving and meaningful relationship with your own cat, a little training can get you there.
“People don't know," Martin says. "That's a big part of it. People don't know you can train cats, because they're depicted as untrainable creatures, so people don't even think about it. They're just like, you just put down the bowl of food and supply a litter box, job done. And that's one of the problems. So one of our missions is to educate and inspire people to work with their own cat.”
When cats are surrendered to shelters, Martin says, it’s often because house cats that spend time at home alone and bored can be destructive and challenging. New dog owners have at least some awareness, from the way dogs are popularly understood, that their pet requires active training. “That’s what responsible dog owners do, because it’s common knowledge,” she says. But cats also respond to stimuli and instruction, from learning basic commands to agility classes — and that kind of engagement, as well as inspiring a healthier and more active pet, builds a stronger and more fulfilling human-cat connection.
“And it inspires people,” she says. “We sell training kits after the show and people can take the training kit home. We have an instructional DVD. And then they can train their own cat do some basic things, which will actually strengthen the bond between the owner and the cat. Because you will no longer have an aloof cat.”