By: Rose Frosek
Photos courtesy of The Amazing Acro-Cats & Rock Cats Rescue
Samantha Martin has an unusual career, to say the least. She travels around the U.S. with a troupe of trained, performing cats called The Amazing Acro-Cats, delighting audiences with circus tricks and an all-cat band, The Rock Cats. For weekend runs, the travelling show sells out venues of 500 to 600 seats. “Once word gets around, people show up in droves,” says Martin.
It’s hard to do justice to the act, which is better seen than described. Martin is an incredibly talented animal trainer. Her cats play cowbell and xylophone, drum, hit the applause sign, jump through hoops, collect donations, perform barrel rolls, ride skateboards, and more. Audiences are amazed by the cooperation and capabilities of the cats, says Martin, who trains the cats using clicker training, a positive reinforcement-based training method that marks desired behaviour with a distinctive “click” sound.
The cat rescuer and entertainer recently gained an even wider audience—she was featured in episode two of the Netflix documentary Cat People, released July 2021. The six-part series is a delight, introducing individuals of different backgrounds and cultures who have built a life around cats. Martin charms with her upbeat stage persona—a humorous counterpoint to the drollness of the cats—and her self-deprecating humour.
There are 15 cats that Martin currently tours with—all of them former orphans, rescues, and strays—along with two or three assistants and a driver. (They are currently hiring.) The all-female team travels in a 45-foot tour bus that is “catified” especially for the cats’ comfort. “We have a spot in the front for our foster kittens that we call kitten city and an area called Condo row for the cats that want their own space,” says Martin. “The back lounge was converted into a cat paradise with runways, perches, and hammocks. Two-thirds of the bus is for the cats, and one-third is for humans—also shared with the cats—when the bus is not in motion.”
The cats are my pets all the time, even when they are performing.
It all started in 2004 with a rescue kitten named Tuna. “This particular kitten was unlike any other I had encountered. She was not very affectionate but took an interest in training like no other cat that I had worked with,’ says Martin.
Martin started taking the kitten around to show off her skill set. “Her signature trick was the bell ringing,” she says. “Sometimes, I would take her to a pet expo rescue booth and have her ring a bell, tap a donation jar and then donate the proceeds to the shelter. It made me feel great to be able to help others while socializing and training my cat in different places.”
Next, she put together a little show with some of the other cats she was working with, thinking it may garner the attention needed to get them into film and television. She would ask galleries that were having shows or openings if she could bring her troupe of cats to work them in their space. “Initially, it was kind of a disaster, but people showed up in droves to see the cats perform—or not,” she laughs. “The cats taught me what they needed to feel comfortable in front of a crowd.”
Martin decided to try to rent a theater, sell tickets, and see if she could make a go of it. “People showed up and absolutely loved our show, which inspired me to continue to take the cats on the road.”
Acro-Cats has now been touring for 13 years—in 2019, they were on the road for nine months of the year. They aim for longer residencies “because it’s a lot of wear and tear on us humans.” The troupe rolls into town and sets up for runs up to four weeks in length. “The cats absolutely love training and performing,” says Martin. “They frequently follow me around and will jump on their props to let me know that they want to work.” They are rewarded with boiled chicken and high value treats such as fresh tuna, salmon, and chicken liver.
“The cats are my pets all the time, even when they are performing,” she says. “Many of them I have raised from just a couple of days old. They all live with me. I take them on adventures. I watch television with them. They are pets on stage and off. That’s what makes our show so unique, and that’s what keeps people coming back to see the show time and time again. Every show is different, depending on what the cat feels like doing.”
In 2009, Martin started fostering cats and kittens that would otherwise be euthanized, and it became a focus of the show. “It became a mission to educate people on how to bond with their cats, so they don’t end up in a shelter,” says Martin, who has fostered and found homes for over 300 cats and kittens to date. “I continue to take in foster kittens when I’m able and find them ‘furever’ homes. I do train every single foster kitten to do some sort of ‘parlor trick,’ so that their owner would never dream of abandoning them. Who is going to give up a cat that high-fives them when they walk in the door at the end of the day?”
Though the pandemic halted touring and presented the group with challenges they are still recovering from, Martin’s passion remains undiminished. The troupe is building back up to their former touring schedule. “If you have a theatre in your town and would like us to show up, let us know!” says Martin.
This article originally appeared in the award-winning Modern Cat magazine. Subscribe today!