Fall 2012 Magazine

Samantha Martin: The Making of an Animal Trainer

By Nancy Marano

Herding cats is impossible. Everyone knows that. So why would a girl pin her career on a group of domestic cats who are notoriously difficult to train? The answer to that question explains Samantha Martin's life.

"I knew I wanted to be an animal trainer when I was seven years old," Martin said. "At that age I had a book called The Book about Me. It contained questions like, 'What are your favorite shoes? What do you want to be?' I wrote down 'animal trainer.' I was just awkward and never really fit in anywhere. Animals were my friends. I took our dog to obedience class and it turned out I was a natural at training. We won a lot of ribbons. I had a rat as a companion when I was in military school and I taught him lots of tricks."

We sat down in the empty Albuquerque theater where she and the Acro-Cats were performing to discuss her background and how she got into this line of work. Several kittens and a groundhog joined us. They were getting some exercise and trying out the equipment on the stage.

Martin is a small, reserved woman who would rather be on stage with her cats than talking about herself. Her hands are always busy with a kitten who is snuggling in her lap or she needs to locate the groundhog who tends to wander off on his own pursuits. She is able to laugh at herself for some of her career choices but she is serious about the cats. Her face lights up when she talks about them

Martin went to the University of Iowa where she majored in psychology but that field didn't suit her. "I realized I didn't really like people so why would I want to do that?" After dropping out of school for about a year, she worked a bunch of dead end jobs, I thought, "Well, this isn't what I want to do either."

Then she saw an ad for an animal behavior class. It was a two-year course offering a degree in small animal services. This sounded perfect. "It was all animals. There were classes in biology, agribusiness, animal husbandry and pet grooming. You got to do internships at various types of animal businesses," Martin said.

On a trip to Chicago she drove past a building with Animal Kingdom painted on the outside. She contacted them to see whether she could do an internship there. She worked with a man who rented animals for movies, commercials, print ads and parties. Working with exotic animals and learning training methods was her dream job. When she finished the internship, she worked in a pet supply store and started her own business called "The Rat Company: Trained Rats for All Occasions."

"I told my co-workers, 'Someday someone is going to walk in that door and need a rat for a movie. I'll be ready for them. Of course, they all laughed, but it happened. Film reps came in looking for rats who could run into a box and answer a phone. I said, 'I've got rats. I'll do it for free for the credit.' I got the job because no one could beat the price," Martin said. And a star was born.

"A Chicago television crew showed up to film my rats. From there it snowballed. I was on TV, I got a trip to Italy for a film and I became known as Chicago's Rat Lady," Martin said. "I added more animals and did a lot of educational programs. But I wanted to be an animal trainer so I decided to switch my focus to working with cats."

Tuna was Martin's first cat. "I wear black all the time and never thought of myself as a white cat lover. But Tuna was remarkable. She learned about 16 things in a month. She's a workaholic who nailed the performance in her first movie where she played a killer cat. This cat was born to the theater and movies. She'll sit on a mark as long as you want her to and doesn't care how close the camera gets to her," she said. "I thought all the cats would be like her but no such luck."

Martin needed a needed a place for the cats to work. "I thought no one would know I was a great cat trainer unless I had work for the cats," she said.

The six cats she had at the time started performing at three Chicago art galleries. Soon people were lined up around the block to see the Acro-Cats. As their following grew, she realized she needed a space for them to perform. Performing regularly would keep the cats' skills sharp and provide a place where people could find them. The Gorilla Tango Theatre in Chicago fit the bill. It had a little theatre atmosphere and the cats could not get out. The show sold out every performance.

Their success was important to Martin on a personal level, as well as a professional one. Her father always supported what she was doing so it meant a lot to her for him to see her as a success before he died. Her mother also was able to appreciate the performances before Alzheimer's took over her life.

Martin studied other cat shows. She quickly learned she was the only American doing this type of show. Russians dominated the field. Gregory Popovich had the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater in Las Vegas. The Cole Brothers Circus featured a Russian woman named Maya who did an eight minute act with domestic cats. In Key West, FL, Dominique LeFort and his flying housecats were the hit of Mallory Square.

A huge difference between her approach and that of other performers is that her cats live with her and are her pets as well as co-workers.

"The Russian performers don't have that same relationship with their cats," she said. "They see performing as the cats' job - period. The cats live in their carriers, come out, do their job and go back. I want to be friends with my cats. I don't want them to just do their trick and that's it. I want them to have lives and I want the audience to know they have lives. My show is compromised because I've made friends with my employees. If I hadn't done that, it would be a flawless show but what fun would that be?

I'm doing this because I love my animals and my cats obviously run the show. I spend time with them. They give me a reason to get out of bed. The love you give cats is returned so unconditionally. I enjoy the company of my cats. Of course, living and working with this many cats means I won't be getting asked out or married but it's worth it," she laughs.

The Acro-Cats show morphed into its present form after a disastrous appearance in Branson, MO. The Popovich show was a staple in Branson but he moved his show to Las Vegas on short notice. She was booked in to replace him along with a dog act and a bird act. "We bombed in Branson," she said. "People came to see the amazing Popovich and they got Samantha's not-so-amazing Acro-Cats."

This became a turning point in her career. Martin thought about quitting but instead she re-tooled the show and kept going.

When Martin says she lives with her cats, she isn't exaggerating. "I live in a three-flat with the cats. There is a first and second floor porch with a large outdoor enclosure. My living room has a couch and a TV. The rest is filled with training equipment. Our whole life is a training exercise. When I cook, the cats don't get on the counter. There is no reward in that. But if they go over to their instruments, they know they'll get a bit of what I'm cooking. The benefits of training are immense in preventing behavior problems. Cats get bored otherwise. They want and need a job," said Martin.

"We keep adding new things to the show. It keeps me having a good time and keeps the cats interested. I don't want anyone to get bored. Also, I don't want people who come back to see the show time after time to get bored," she continued. "I watch what the cats do naturally and then stage tricks for them using that natural talent."

Pinky, the lead guitarist, rehearses every day. That routine turned out to be a life saver for her. "One day she didn't come to practice and wouldn't take a treat so I immediately knew something was wrong. We went to the vet right away. I wouldn't have discovered the problem as quickly without the training. Cats hide sickness. Every one of these cats has a routine. I know their behaviors and know when something is off," Martin said. "Everyone can monitor their cat's health by doing regular training. If something is wrong with your cat, it will show up."

During the show, Martin talks about the benefits of clicker training. She explains to the audience how it increases the bond between them and their cat. "I tell people to treat their cat more like they treat their dog. More cats are in shelters than dogs because people don't think they can have that type of relationship with their cats. The tricks are games and puzzles and a way to bond. I always teach the kittens I foster to run to their carriers when they hear a whistle. That's a great thing for them to know when they get adopted."

When she rescued the kittens who are in her current show to foster, the shelter worker had to pull them from the back of the cage because they were so shy. Ten days later they were purring and doing tricks in the show.

"Clicker training is a communication tool the person and the cat understand. It brings cats out of their shells. The kitten who can sit up and wave will get more attention at the shelter. It would be great if more shelters used clicker training in their programs," she said.

Martin tells the stories of various cats during the show. Oz's mother ate a poisoned rat leaving baby Oz and his brother Itty on their own at the age of two days. Pudge was found in a box on the side of the road and Tuna's mother was abandoned and pregnant. Martin didn't realize how many cats were euthanized in shelters until she decided to begin rescuing cats. The first time she went to the shelter she was told the kittens she didn't take would be euthanized the next day. She took 11 kittens and went back the next day for more.

She learned the hard way that fostering can be difficult and doesn't always produce good results. Martin once fostered a litter with panleukopenia. She had the kittens in isolation but the disease was transferred to her cats through contact with her clothes. She lost the kittens and one of her best Acro-Cats. After that she took many more precautions with the kittens.

Now she fosters bottle babies for the Princeton, IL shelter. "I teach all the kittens a few tricks besides going to the carrier when hearing the whistle. If they know something when they are adopted, people are more likely to keep them," Martin said.

Martin discusses fostering during the shows. "It's my way of planting the seed for the audience. Fostering is hard and it's not for everyone," she said.

The cats and Martin have developed a close relationship with their fans. Many people come to the show often and feel connected to the cats. Recently Martin decided people couldn't hear the piano and that the Rock Cats needed a synthesizer instead.

"I announced at one of the shows how Nue, the piano player, was bummed these days because no one could hear the piano. It was falling apart, the legs were coming out and it was held together by duct tape. I said I'd found the perfect synthesizer but it was $436.87. I made a donation chart that showed the level of contributions. In six weeks fans donated enough for the synthesizer. I went out and got the new instrument. Nue just seemed to be a little more proud when she played it. But now the drum set looked terrible. I did the same thing with that. I said Dakota used to be the star of the show on the drums but now she's bummed because Nue has a new synthesizer. Now Dakota and Nue are fighting. Just when I said that, they swatted each other. Fans contributed the $300 for the drum set," said Martin.

Some people think this is hard on the cats because they are working. But, once they come to the show, they see the cats are having fun and running everything. "People like the way the cats run the show. There is no cruelty involved and it's all positive reinforcement. The only question I ever get is whether the cats have lives of their own," Martin said. "Now I post more pictures of them on Facebook in their everyday environment so people can get to know them."

Herding cats isn't just a phrase anymore; it's become Martin's whole life. But the real trick is she makes the herding look easy.

(For more information on the Acro-Cats go to www.circuscats.com and be sure to check out their Facebook page for the latest news on this amazing cat ensemble. To learn more about the show, check "Cat Chat" in this issue.)

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by three cats, Sammy, Callie and Max. Callie and Max are new additions to the family. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America.

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