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Interview: Circus Cats' Samantha Martin

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 6, 2009 8:10PM

Originally known as the “Rat Lady of Chicago,” Amazing Animals founder and owner Samantha Martin has been working with animals for more than 25 years. A feline specialist, she has trained some of her most talented to play music as The Acro-Cats, whose sound is akin to the Shaggs -- without vocals (but if the cats could sing, it might sound something like, "and the meow people meow, what the meow-meow people meow").

See Martin's Circus Cats show at the Gorilla Tango Theater Saturday, March 21 at 2 and 3:30 pm; and Sunday, March 22 at 1 and 3 pm. Tickets $12. Reservations are recommended -- these performances sell out fast.

Recently we went to watch the Acro-Cats and asked Martin about her amazing animals.

Chicagoist: Did you have pets as a child? Did you train them to do tricks?

Samantha Martin: I started out training our family dogs. We had Labrador Retrievers. I didn't train them to do anything elaborate, just basic obedience. But I knew then that I had a love for working with animals. When I was a teenager, I was in a boarding school and I was very lonely and unhappy. I smuggled a pet rat from a pet store into my room and quickly discovered how smart and affectionate [rats] are. I began training that rat and have never looked back.

C: How did you transition from "rat lady" to "cat lady"?

SM: While I will always love rats, you can only go so far as a rat trainer. People will never overcome their aversion to them, and there aren't that many jobs for rats. I was getting a lot of work for cats in photo shoots, and usually it called for specific behaviors. By training the cat to behave naturally on cue, I discovered how easy and fun it is to work with cats. So, slowly I began adding more and more cat tricks and cat behaviors to my training sessions until suddenly I was the cat lady ... although I prefer 'Cat Woman.'

C: How many pets do you have total?

SM: I have roughly 21 cats, but not all of them are part of the cat troupe. I have some rescues that I have never been able to find the right home for, and some elder cats who are retired now. I also have an African Serval cat who shares my apartment with me. I have exotics for the educational show portion of my business, but they are housed in the facility below my apartment. I turned my enclosed back porch and the room below it, as well as most of my back deck outside, into a large, enclosed cattery. The cats have a bigger apartment than I do!

C: Are you still pursuing your Animal Behaviorist degree?

SM: I am currently attending clicker training courses through the Karen Pryor clicker expos. I also trained under Bob Bailey at his operant conditioning courses.

C: What is the most fascinating/surprising thing you have learned in your studies, and have you found anything in your studies that substantially contradicts what you've learned from your own experience observing animal behavior?

SM: It's fascinating how much the animals crave training time. My cats are constantly watching me and waiting for a chance to learn something new. Tuna actually gets crabby if I don't spend time training her. I also love watching the animals try to figure out something new, and when they finally get it, you can see it in their eyes (lightbulb moment). It's one of the most rewarding moments.

There is controversy about whether an animal can learn from watching another animal. I think they do watch and learn. I recently found Pinky (my guitar player) sitting on the main training set in expectation. She has never been worked there -- her only job has been to play the guitar. Obviously she wants to learn more.

C: Which animal is the hardest to care for?

SM: The serval can be tricky, because he's very finicky and requires a huge amount of attention. Sometimes I've had to hand-feed him, like when he's in a particularly huffy mood. He also hates to be alone, and prefers the company of humans to the other cats.

C: How do you decide to name the animals?

I watch the animal, see what their personality is like and go from there. Sometimes I see a name from different sources and it just hits me as 'the name' -- i.e., a movie poster (Dakota was named after Dakota Fanning when I saw it on a movie poster), a water bottle (fiji was named this way), Nue was named after a Polynesian fire dancer I was on tour with. Buggles looked like a bug when she was a kitten. Pinky had a red dot on her ear (the whole litter looked alike); the red faded to pink, and she got her name. We usually know when we get it right because some animals, especially cats, will ignore the name if they don't like it. Almost every name has a story behind it.

C: What do you have planned for the future of Rock-Cats/Acro Cats -- bigger band? Recordings?

I don't think anyone is ever going to sign them -- their music is just way too offbeat, and the band in-fighting turns talent scouts off. Maybe more music videos are in their future.

I would love to expand the cats' audience and give more people a chance to see the show -- and learn that not only are cats trainable, but that [training is] a great way to interact with your cat. I hope to get the cats on the road for a U.S. tour, and am currently searching for venues in other states.