It all started with a cat named Tuna.
Twelve years ago, animal trainer Samantha Martin was caring for an abandoned pregnant cat who gave birth to three white kittens. It was a bit distressing, as Martin wore a lot of black, she says, and wasn't sure about owning her first white cat. Still, she adopted one she named Tuna.
"There was something special about her," Martin says from her home base in Chicago. "She developed and I saw she was a brilliant cat. Not necessarily that affectionate, but devoted and work-oriented."
At 6 weeks old, Tuna started getting her resume together, Martin says, by quickly picking up 16 behaviors.
The now 12-year old is the oldest of 13 cats and one kitten that make up the traveling show The Amazing Acro-Cats, a conglomeration of orphans, rescues and strays that have made their way into Martin's life. The show comes to Stargazers Theatre and Event Center on Wednesday and Thursday.
Martin uses clicker training to get the felines motivated. During the hourlong show, they jump through hoops, push barrels and shopping carts, walk on high wires, ring bells and anything else Martin can come up with for the mostly female performers.
"I have two males in the show," she says. "Males are easier going and friendlier toward new cats. They're more lovey dovey, but more on the lazy side. Females are task-oriented. They work harder and hold the shows together."
As one might expect, there's definitely some drama that goes along with the job.
"Some of them have their private wars," she says. "There's going to be spats - they're cats. They have swatting wars in the middle of the show."
Part of the show is devoted to The Rock Cats - a band of six cats that play drums, guitar and cowbell, among other instruments. "Annie drifts over into Dakota's territory in the band," Martin says. "She likes to annoy Dakota, our beat drummer. She's like 'I'm not touching you, I'm not touching you!' Annie runs off, Dakota swishes her tail and then the piano player gets upset. You know how bands are."
After the show, audience members can come up and meet the cats, though Martin only allows one of the cats to be touched.
"She really likes the interaction. The other ones are busy playing instruments," she says. "They're like movie stars. Rather than kiss or hug them, you take pictures next to the stars."
Martin has also trained dogs and goldfish, but cats hold a special place in her heart.
"I love their independent nature. They always keep you guessing," she says.