'I Manage a Group Of Performing Cats'

I knew I wanted to be an animal trainer from the age of 7, so I started training the family dog at 9 and I had a natural gift for it, so I won prizes. I also always tried to save injured local wildlife and nurse those animals back to health. I was a bit of a social outcast, I didn't really fit in within my small town, and you have a lot more time to yourself when you don't have many friends. But that enabled me to be comfortable in my own skin, learn how to entertain myself and be comfortable with animals.

When I was 16, I got my first rat and I remember reading up about how they are highly intelligent. Then, I moved to Chicago at the age of 23 and I really found my niche and my people. I was working in a pet store and I had this group of rats that I had trained up. I even had little business cards printed up that said "The Rat Company: Trained Acro-Rats for all occasions." The Acro-Rats show became a cult hit. I was embraced for something I had been rejected for in the early part of my life.

I kept telling people that some day, someone was going to walk in the door of the pet shop wanting a rat for a movie. Everyone thought I was crazy. Well, one day, someone working on an independent movie came into the pet store needing a rat.

I quit my job at the pet shop for this non-paying movie gig and a TV station showed up to film me with the rats. They showed how I had trained them to answer telephones and do tricks. This TV segment then aired all over the country and a guy in Italy saw it and asked me to fly over to Italy and do a show with the rats on Christmas Eve. That's when everything snowballed and I appeared on all sorts of different TV shows. I was the "rat lady" before I became the "cat lady," it's really a "rats to riches" story. But the rats were small so I could only perform in smaller venues, like nightclubs, and I realized I couldn't make a living that way. So I expanded and I was doing wildlife education programmes to make ends meet.

In the early 2000s, I realized I hadn't fulfilled my dream of training animals for film and television. Cats are the second most popular pet in the U.S. but they're known for being a nightmare to work with. I had tried to incorporate cats into my live show with the rats and it had been a disaster. But then a cat named Tuna came into my life and she was extraordinary. So I decided to train her to perform all sorts of tricks and started taking her to pet expos. She would ring a bell and I'd hand out cards and Tuna began to get some photoshoot and film work.

I use clicker training, it's all about positive reinforcement. Cats don't respond very well to any form of punishment. With clicker training, you click the clicker at the same time that you deliver a treat. So the sound of the click means they've just done something that's going to earn them a reward. You can also use a target stick to direct them to perform certain actions. It's a way to communicate the behavior you're looking for the cat to act out.

In 2004, I put the cat band together. I was touring with my wildlife show in an RV and I had trained Tuna and several other cats put together a cat band that played piano, drums and guitar. They actually do play the instruments. Their claws are natural pickers for the
guitar and they do hit the keys on the keyboard. The drums are set up in a way that they hit one side of the sticks to get them to go up and down on the drums.

I set the cat band on the table of the RV and when we stopped somewhere, I'd open the door and ask passers by if they wanted to see something cool. It went down really well, so when I got back from that tour I decided to put together a whole show with the cats.

I was still running a business offering cats to perform in film and television, but I decided to do what I had done with the rats all those years ago. The show took on a life of its own. They started off in art galleries and people turned up in droves. There are so many cat lovers out there.

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Because the cats are my pets—they are all former orphans, rescues and strays—I live with them and I raise a lot of them from when they are babies. So I watch what they do on their own; do they spend a lot of time high up or do they prefer to be on the ground? Do they use their paws a lot or their nose instead? I come up with tricks from there.

With a show like this, you have to be able to laugh at yourself and be embarrassed when the cats don't do anything. I had to come up with lines to say to fill the air. We've now traveled all over America and to Canada once. We do very well in Texas and people love us in places like New Orleans, Portland, San Francisco and San Diego.

We have filled 600 seat venues, but because the cats are small, I like the intimate venues; the ones between 200-500 seats. In 2009, the mission changed a little because I started fostering and have fostered more than 300 cats and kittens to date. So the show is now also about spreading the word about rescuing.

The show now starts with the initial meeting of the new Tuna. Sadly, the original Tuna passed away and now there are two new Tunas who lower an applause sign and ring a bell. I then talk about the cats and do a little clicker training demonstration with a rescue cat. Next, we do the part where cats who are still learning tricks perform, then the Amazing Acro-Cats perform to music, which sometimes goes amazingly, and sometimes it's a train wreck. But even when it's a train wreck people still say it's the best show they have seen in their life. I then talk about some of the cats, there is a competition between two cats and a chicken, and finally the Rock Cats cat band plays. It's a nine piece band that also has cowbell, chimes, cymbal and tambourine, saxophone, trumpet and clarinet, so it's really the Rock Cats and Jazz Cats now.

We have one cat called Jax who knows how to do all the tricks, but at one point she decided that all she wanted to do was sit on a skull. It was Halloween and I'd bought a skull for the show and she really got into it. Sometimes she would sit on the skull, but then she decided that what she really wanted to do was be among the audience. She roams the audience and works the crowd. Sometimes she'll sit on someone's lap for 20 minutes and other times she comes back with bills in her collar. It's really funny. At a certain point in the show, I announce her and her trick and she always comes back to the stage because she doesn't want to miss her curtain call.

In 2019, I was out on the road for about 9 months, it was a little exhausting. The year before I had been diagnosed with cancer, but I survived and got right back out there. Then I got scammed and the pandemic hit, so it was one punch after another. After almost two years we got back out on the road and recently completed a tour of the east coast of the U.S. We now have a 45ft long tour bus and the back third of the bus is cat paradise. But there is also space for humans to sleep and a refrigerator, shower and bathroom.

I wish I had celebrity fans but I've just been on a lot of TV shows and I did appear on the Netflix TV show Cat People. I was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but the cats bombed on that show; only three performed. Stephen Colbert was a good sport but I had hoped it was going to be awesome, and it wasn't. The cats freeze when we do those talk shows, but they're fine in a live theater with hundreds of people in the audience!

I have had to retire a few cats and I have some 16-year-olds still in the show. The future will be full of tears and heartbreak, because I'm going to lose my family members. I've raised some of these cats since they were two days old and the chances are I'll take more in.

When I die, I have such a huge following that I know these cats and any other I take in are going to be cared for. Until then, I will keep going on because I can make a difference; I'm saving animals' lives.

Samantha Martin is the founder and trainer of The Amazing Acro Cats and the Rock Cats. She also helps rescue, foster and adopt out cats with Rock Rescue Cats. Find out more about both at rockcatsrescue.org. Follow them on YouTube here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.