By Will Broaddus
---- — A herd of trained cats is coming to Salem.
If you have trouble believing this could be true, you will fit in with half the audience that usually goes to see them.
“There’s two types of people at our show,” said Samantha Martin, founder and trainer of The Amazing Acro-Cats, a feline troupe that will perform at The Griffen Theatre from July 17 through 20. “There’s cat lovers, because there’s no entertainment for them out there. And there’s the people that are, ‘No way, I’ve got to see this for myself.’”
What visitors will see is one of four companies in the country that features trained cats, Martin said.
There are 13 Acro-Cats — with a supporting cast that includes a groundhog and two chickens — that play musical instruments, jump through hoops, ride skateboards and hoist flags.
Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that, before the Acro-Cats, Martin trained the Amazing Acro-Rats.
“They’re a misunderstood animal,” she said. “I wanted to change people’s minds about rats. Rats are really smart and sweet and fun to train.”
They are also agile, said Martin, who persuaded rats to do somersaults on a high wire, climb ladders, walk through hoops, bowl and play basketball.
Where some people shudder at the mere thought of rats, Martin’s only misgivings about them were economic.
“It was very popular, but I couldn’t make a living with rats,” she said.
So Martin turned to educational zoo keeping and for the last 25 years has exhibited small exotic animals, although she never lost the desire to train creatures to perform.
She started with dogs at age 10 and turned to cats 10 years ago because they are the second-most-requested type of animal act for videos and film, Martin said.
But they do live up to their reputation for independence.
“The cats do run the show, and change things up, based on the cats’ mood that day,” Martin said.
Martin’s training techniques are mostly self-taught, but she does use the Karen Pryor clicker training method, which she learned at a chicken training camp in Hot Springs, Ark.
“You can use the tools through the training camp with any species,” she said. “Clicker training is all positive reinforcement. If they do behavior we like, we click and give them a treat.
“It’s an effective way to communicate with animals, because you can pinpoint the moment they do the right thing.”
Training a cat can take from two minutes to three months, depending on the trick.
The act of rolling on a ball in a barrel, for instance, has to be broken down into segments, from simply standing on top of a stationary ball to staying on top of one that wobbles, then causing it to roll.
While the clicker method works with cats, Martin said, they often need more retraining than other animals.
“They are easy to train, but it’s difficult to have them do anything on your time schedule,” she said. “They do things on their time schedule, and they’re always wanting to renegotiate.”
Martin said it can be like working with “reckless rock stars.”
“They’re very unprofessional,” she said. “Sometimes they do a meet-and-greet in the middle of the show. They have little spats amongst themselves, or they’re looking for catnip.”
Once she had trained her troupe, Martin put on shows in art galleries, to give them some exposure.
“It took on a life of its own,” she said. “They showed up in droves.”
She “took the plunge” and rented a local theater in Chicago, where the Acro-Cats sold out for weeks. Four years ago, she started taking them on tour.
“I got hooked on traveling,” Martin said. “Now I spend three-quarters of the year on the road in a bus full of cats.”
The Acro-Cats have taken on a mission with their success, as Martin now trains mostly foster cats and brings cats to shows that audience members can adopt.
“We hand out applications,” she said. “If people are interested, they pick up a kitten on the last show day in our area. We have five foster kittens on this trip.”
These kittens have all been trained by Martin to run into a pet carrier in an emergency, when their owner blows a whistle, and they also do a bit of performing.
“They do some cute tricks the owner can easily do,” Martin said. “They come with a free training kit, if the owner wants to do some other tricks.
“They’re super-easy to train. Sitting in a room with a cat, you’ll be amazed what you can get that cat to do.”
If you go
What: The Amazing Acro-Cats
When: July 17-19, 6:30 and 9 p.m.; July 20, 1, 4 and 7 p.m.
Where: The Griffen Theatre, 7 Lynde St., Salem
Tickets: $18 for adults, $15 for kids 12 and under at www.circuscats.com
More information: 773-549-3357