The Amazing Acro-Cats: Is my Munchkin cat Hollywood material?
Take a look at these cats: These are the Amazing Acro-Cats, which have skills that make even the cutest of house cats look like Garfield's fatter, more sarcastic cousins. The second I saw this photo, I wondered (and then doubted) whether my cat has similar chops -- whether she's secretly a showcat whose inner talent has been stymied by my hectic schedule and aggressive cuddling. Maybe she was born for the bow tie!
So I called Acro-Cats owner/trainer/ringmaster Samantha Martin, and asked the question any cat owner dreams of asking the leader of one of the country's four touring cat shows: "Can you train my cat to be in the circus?"
Her answer: She could try. My cat is not one of her cats, she pointed out; working show cats have been trained their entire lives to perform under stage lights. My cat is also not a normal cat: Laika, a nine-month-old Munchkin, is a tiny-legged creature of wonder, but her strange breeding means that if she eats one extra meal, her white-speckled belly drags past her three-inch stumps. She is adorable but hardly graceful, and her short stature makes it impossible for her to turn on a light switch, roll a barrel or jump through a hoop any decent distance from the ground.
"Training a fully grown cat is like if I were to go to circus school to be a trapeze artist at my age," Martin warned. "It's not impossible, but it's certainly not easy."
By the time Martin came to my apartment to meet Laika, though, I'd convinced myself that my cat had a secret talent; I had only to call it out of her. Or enlist the help of a cat-whisperer to whisper it out of her.
The first step, according to Martin, is to pay attention to your cat and note what she already enjoys. You do not teach a cat to do a brand-new trick. You teach a cat to perform an unusual feat based on something she does already. If a cat enjoys batting at toys with her paws, for example, she might make a good guitar player. If she can sit still and focus, she might make a good chauffeur for the toy car that pulls your groundhog. (This is a real segment of Martin's act.)
My cat enjoys eating, meowing and nestling next to me like a hot-water bottle tucked into my sheets, I told Martin. Are any of those trick-worthy? Oh, and I read in an issue of Cat Fancy at the vet that Munchkins are good at sitting up.
This is basically what Laika does for a living.
This last feat, it turns out, can be modeled into what Martin and her cats call "sitting pretty," a trick in which one of the thirteen traveling cats (she owns twenty total, but seven stay at home with her performing rats) rises onto its hind legs and pushes out its paws. So we focused on that: By tempting Laika with baby food and guiding her with a stick, Martin initiated the first steps in Laika's eventual trek to stardom. But she seemed completely uninterested, and kept going back to sleep.
Martin uses the Clicker method to train her troupe of animals, which, at one time, included a kinkajou, a binturong and an alligator. With a small wooden stick, she indicates an action she'd like a cat to perform -- first coming up to the stick, then jumping to the stick, then sitting down in front of it -- and presses a clicker to reinforce the correct action, followed immediately by a bribe. Onstage, she carries six treat cups full of fresh tuna, bagged tuna, chicken, salmon, steak and baby food to accommodate her cats' wildly varied palettes. "There's a reason the phrase is 'like herding cats,'" jokes Martin.
Samantha Martin tames the wild beast.
Click through for Martin's back story and vaguely unimpressive footage of Laika's new trick.