Getting a dog to fetch, sit or roll over is so last week. But compelling a cat to do tricks? To paraphrase Hollywood's legendary anchorman Ron Burgundy, "That's kind of a big deal."
But overachiever Samantha Martin, chief executive human and trainer for The Amazing Acro-cats, isn't content with even these pedestrian stunts. Her performing house cats ride skateboards, jump through hoops, climb poles and play instruments in the all-cat band Tuna and the Rock Cats. Rising star Alley even broke the Guinness World Record for longest cat jump.
Martin's secret? She uses clicker training, which causes less stress and gives positive reinforcement, but cats still have a mind of their own. When they were guests on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it was hit or miss on whether the cats even wanted to leave their cages to perform.
"That’s one of the appeals and that’s one of the reasons a lot of people come back again and again. Every show can be different," says Martin, about the unexpected nature of doing a live show. She says something as small as an audience member wearing a certain kind of hat can distract a performer. "We don't know what the cats want to do."
She actually says it's easy to train cats, but it's also hard because they want to do things at their own pace. "A lot of times I’ll start training a cat and want them to do specific things; they let me know that that's not something they want to do."
The 90-minute show closes with a concert by Tuna and the Rock Cats, with musically-inclined felines playing the guitar, drums, keyboard, trumpet, saxophone, tambourine, woodblocks and cowbell. "It is quite a vision to see," says Martin. "I never get tired of seeing it." Houston, we've got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.
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Musician riders can get extreme, like Van Halen's shunning of brown M&Ms, but there aren't any divas with Tuna and the Rock Cats. Martin says they do have their preferences and the cats wouldn't mind tuna and catnip in every room, but they haven't made any extreme requests at The MATCH. The 35-foot professional tour bus, however, has all the bells and whistles of any mega star. "The cats have the back third of the bus. There's a kitty city area in the front for the adoptables. So two thirds are for the cats and one third is for the humans."
It's also a feel-good show, as Martin's performers were once homeless cats and kittens. Each show benefits a local shelter — the Houston stop benefits Friends of League City Animal Shelter — and adoptable kittens will be available for a meet and greet after the show.
Martin says they've found homes for 216 cats and kittens over the years, but still more needs to be done. She's also working on building a retirement sanctuary in Georgia titled Meowy Manor and has started a GoFundMe to build enrichment activities in the indoor/outdoor play areas and habitats.
Performances of The Amazing Acro-cats are at 1 and 5 p.m. January 28, 3 and 7 p.m. January 29-31, The MATCH, 3400 Main, 713-521-4533, matchouston.org. $27 to $47.