By Allison Matyus
On a Thursday night in October, a sold out crowd packed the Vittum Theater in Noble Square; not to see the latest musical act or to laugh at a comedian’s skit, but to see cats—the Amazing Acro-Cats, to be more specific.
Fourteen cats, two rats, one chicken and one groundhog make up the hour and a half show led by Chicagoan Samantha Martin, who can make her cats jump through hoops, walk on their hind legs, give a high five and even play an instrument through positive reinforcement training: a.k.a. yummy treats.
“I did not see any trained cat acts out there…and then I discovered why,” Martin said to the crowd, as one of her cats wandered off stage into the laps of audience members.
“You never know what the cats are going to do. Sometimes they don’t always cooperate but I think that people with cats relate to that and it makes the audience laugh and smile,” Martin told The Idea Forge.
Martin’s cats begin training for stardom at a young age as orphaned or abandoned kittens that she took in as fosters. She said she has been fostering kittens since 2009.
“When I went in [a shelter] to get my first litter they showed me to the kitten room and there was a kitten there outside of the litter that was going to be euthanized,” she said. “I ended up fostering them all and found them homes. It was an eye opening experience for me.”
Since then, Martin takes in cats when she can that are found in rescue shelters, roadside ditches or left at highway gas stations and takes them in to train them for her show.
“One time a bus stopped in front of our house and the door opened and a kitten came out right to us, so we called him CTA,” Martin said.
She has found permanent loving homes for 186 cats to date, with one kitten named Pickles currently up for adoption.
“Whoever adopts them will be less likely to relinquish them some day,” she said. “They are very well acclimated and social through training and the shows.”
Martin and her on-stage helpers use a training technique using a clicker accompanied by a treat right after.
During the performance, her cats bowl spares, jump across elevated platforms, climb up posts and even ride a skateboard. The theater is constantly filled with laughter and “awws” because whether the cats are successful at their tricks or not, they are still adorable.
Martin said the tricks are beneficial for both cat and owner.
“It’s a great little form of communication and gives your cat a chance to use their brain,” she said. “It can help detect health problems early as well, because if you have a training routine developed with your cat you will notice right away if something is wrong.”
During the show Martin gives tips for cat owners on the benefits of training their own cats, but she said that the training period is a small window.
“Generally the best time to train a cat is between five weeks and four months old because they learn very quickly when they are young,” she said.
The stars of her show include her now grown up fosters like Buggles “The Nerd,” Jax “The Troublemaker,” Pudge “The Sweetheart,” Oz “The Clown” and Alley “The Athlete.” Right now, Martin and her co-stars are gearing up for a string of Midwest shows. She said that they usually tour nine months out of the year.
A portion of ticket purchases throughout the tour will benefit different animal rescue organizations depending on the show’s location. The Oct. 6 through Oct. 9 Chicago run benefitted the Friends of Chicago Animal Care and Control.
While each show can be unexpected, depending on the cats’ mood and motivation, it seems to always capture the audience in a way no other performance can do.
“That was even better than Hamilton,” a show goer said leaving the theater.