Samantha Martin always knew she wanted to do something spectacular with animals. The Chicagoan studied animal services in college before embarking on a journey to search out her true passion. She worked everywhere from veterinary clinics to groomers, but something wasn’t clicking. It was then that Martin decided to tackle a field that would allow her natural panache and unique ability to connect with animals shine: show business.
Today, Martin is the human star of The Amazing Acro-Cats, a traveling troupe of talented rescue kitties who dazzle audiences with music and tricks. It’s quite possibly the only show where performers entertain patrons by ignoring their rehearsed cues, choosing instead to scratch an itch or groom a paw. It’s also the only place where you’ll see a cat playing guitar on stage.
But long before the sold-out shows, the dedicated fans, and the spots on late-night shows with Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert, there was Martin, a dream, and a company of pet rats—The Acro-Rats, predecessors to today’s famous feline ensemble.
“I always go for the underdog animal,” says Martin, whose Acro-Rats show ran in the late 1980s. “Rats are so smart; they’re engaging. I had mine trained to go up little fire truck ladders, rescue plastic dolls out of a fake burning house, and put them into an ambulance.” The Acro-Rats performed on film, television, and live shows, giving Martin a taste of animal show business. And then came Tuna.
“Tuna is the star,” says Martin of the white-furred, green-eyed cat who inspired the creation of The Amazing Acro-Cats. “Training her was the catalyst for the show. She doesn’t like other cats. She doesn’t like to be held or cuddled, but she loves to work.”
Tuna came into Martin’s life thirteen years ago, when a neighbor abandoned a pregnant cat. Martin adopted out all of the kittens but one––Tuna––who loved to perform tricks. And thus, a star was born.
Tuna isn’t just the inspiration behind The Acro- Cats; she’s also manager of the onstage band The Rock Cats, a talented cowbell player, and a strict guardian of the tip jar where fans leave donations after the show.
In the beginning it was just Martin and Tuna, a one- woman, one-cat show performing at pet expos. The reception was good, and Martin’s goal to make it big kept her going.
“Around 2009 I decided I wanted to add another cat to the show. But how do you choose? How do you know who’s going to be a good Acro-Cat? It occurred to me that if I fostered a litter then I could train them all, pick the best one, and find homes for the rest,” Martin says.
Martin’s first trip to pick up a litter ended with her taking home a brood of eleven kittens, all sick with respiratory infections. “The shelter said that whoever I didn’t take that day would be euthanized. I was stunned. I had no idea that there were that many [cats being euthanized]. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll take all of them!’”
None of the kittens from the initial litter were good fits for the show, but Martin nursed them to health and found each of them homes. After the last of the eleven kittens had been adopted, she returned to the shelter for another six.
It was a turning point, Martin says, expanding her focus from show business to animal welfare. Through her continued fostering, Martin has increased the cast of The Amazing Acro-Cats to fourteen talented felines, and 169 (and counting) kittens have found their forever families.
“My show is a perfect vehicle for fostering,” Martin says. “We reach thousands of people, but also the cats get socialized because I raise them as my own. They learn basic training, how to go in carriers, how to travel in cars. They all know how to come at the sound of a whistle. And they do cute little parlor tricks that endear them to their future caregivers. Cats are [so often] relinquished, but nobody’s going to get rid of a cat who high fives them when they come home from work.”
Martin’s success is the result of hard work, passion, and the belief that all animals—even cats—are trainable. For pet parents who want to train their cat, Martin recommends not leaving a food bowl out all day. Instead, take ten minutes before mealtime to work on basic tricks like high fiving and coming when called, using food as a reward. Training is a great way to bond with your kitty, Martin says. Plus, the extra time together makes it easier to spot any changes in behavior that may suggest discomfort, pain, or illness.
For Martin and The Acro-Cats, training is the easy part. It’s performing on cue during a live show that can be tricky. “You’re in front of a big crowd, and you’ve got this animal who’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, hold on, I’ll get to it. I have to stretch first,’” she says. “When we’re training, they’re in the zone. They’re learning; they’re excited. No one is watching; there’s no pressure. But then when you get in front of a crowd there are all these variables.”
Regardless of whether they’re jumping through hoops, banging the drums, or plopping down to lick a paw, The Acro-Cats have resonated with animal lovers. They travel the country, performing regularly to sold-out crowds and appearing on live shows and advertising campaigns. The cats travel in style. Their “kitty city” takes up the back third of the tour bus and is replete with climbing perches, scratching posts, hammocks, and beds. “The cats are the pampered stars, and the humans are the roadies that do all the work,” Martin says.
Looking back on all that she has accomplished, Martin realizes that she has achieved her dream of making it in show business simply by doing what she enjoys with the cats who she loves. However, it’s the other accomplishments that mean the most. “It turned into something better,” she says. “It’s about saving cats now, teaching people the importance of training their own cats, and bringing people and their pets closer together.”
Martin’s ultimate goal is to purchase her own theater, where she can set up an elaborate stage (that doesn’t need to be taken down and put away at the end of every show), host adoption events, and open a cat café where her older cats can retire among their fans.
But for now, she’s more than happy to hit the open road. A recent successful Kickstarter campaign will allow The Acro-Cats to upgrade from their current 1963 tour bus to a brand new one. That’s good news for the cats, and even better news for Martin, who will not miss the constant roadside breakdowns. Best of all, it means that people across the country will continue to enjoy the dazzling, sparkling, awe- inspiring feats of The Amazing Acro-Cats.
WANT TO SEE THE AMAZING ACRO-CATS UP CLOSE? Check out their tour schedule at CircusCats.com