Cats fantastic!

Dakota is a cat who loves chasing string, cuddling in warm laps and playing with classic toys like jingle balls. She also enjoys wailing on the drums like her paws are on fire. Dakota keeps the rhythm in an all-cat Latin groove band called the Rock Cats, along with five other felines. They play everything from keyboards to cowbell. 

Dakota and her clowder are members of The Acro-Cats, a traveling cat circus and rock band from Chicago. A bus full of felines is coming to Asheville for a whopping 19 performances — no doubt evidence of the popularity of cats performing tricks, something many cat owners may have thought impossible. The BeBe Theatre will teem with cats jumping through hoops, walking tightropes, balancing in pyramids and riding skateboards for nine days of mayhem and kitty insanity.

Obey my every command, please?

The Acro-Cats' trainer Samantha Martin began teaching the family dog tricks when she was 7 years old. She discovered an instant connection with animals of all kinds, going on to earn a degree in animal husbandry and later intern at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Martin started her menagerie with a horde of acrobatic rats, a ferret and a kinkajou. She quickly realized she couldn't make a living on rats and exotic animals alone, so she turned to an animal that would seem to be equally untrainable: the common house cat.

As a devoted animal lover, Martin was on the lookout for talented cats with star potential. Also, she couldn't resist a room full of kittens in need of rescue. Martin went to her local animal shelter, and upon realizing it was a kill facility, took them home, then found homes for all 11. She went back for more, keeping the most trainable and slowly building a core team of 12 highly skilled cats (finding homes for more than 100 others in the process, she says).

The first few Acro-Cats shows were an exercise in controlled chaos. The felines got distracted and a tad ornery, just as you'd expect from a stage full of cats (after all, a group of cats is often called a glaring). "They're very unprofessional. It's like, 'Hello guys, we're in the middle of a show here,'" Martin says. Audiences loved it, even when the felines wandered off or refused to move. Cats, more so than dogs, need to be in the mood to perform, but a certain amount of training can make that happen.

"It's like a game,” Martin says. “It's all positive reinforcement. It's all clicker training.” Clicker training is a popular and well-documented method of letting animals know when they've done something right by pairing an action with a sound. When an acro-cat performs a desired action, such as ringing a bell or giving a high-five, Martin marks the behavior with a mechanical device that makes a clicking noise. At first, the click is followed by a treat, but soon the sound is a reward in itself. The method is especially effective with felines — because sometimes a kind word or a pat on the back isn't enough to get a cat's attention.

Not a Russian cat circus

asked local trainer and animal behavior specialist Tristan Rehner if teaching tricks via clicker training is good for cats. Yes, said Rehner, who works as a behavior and training coordinator for Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. "Not only do I think it is [positive], but it has been proven to be an effective training method for all kinds of animals,” she says.

And what about the stress factor? Do public performance situations cause anxiety for the animals? Xpress asked Rehner to review videos of the Acro-Cats in action, Rehner believes that the shows do no harm. "I love that she is really clear that it's a voluntary thing for the cats," says Rehner. "The cats have the opportunity to participate or not, and the fact that they are participating really indicates that it's motivating for them as well."

If the cats get frightened by the audience or the lights, they can go back to their carriers and sit out the trick. If they run off backstage, that's OK, too. Sometimes the cats come back covered in cobwebs, but Martin assures us that they always come back. The cats aren't just Martin's livelihood (she does extensive film and advertising work with the cats), but they're also part of her family. "They are cats, but they're my pets, too,” she says. “They aren't just working cats that live in cages that come out and work and go back to their cages. They actually have lives."

Band drama

The Rock-Cats spend their working lives making cacophonous music for the masses. These rock stars started as free-jazz artists, but with the addition of "more cowbell," the band now considers itself a Latin music group. While their musical prowess must be witnessed to believed, the Rock-Cats aren't the only felines in the world that can make sweet sounds.

Keyboard-playing cats have flooded the Internet over the past few years, but it's a rare feline that can play guitar. Martin uses specialized instruments to accommodate not-so-nimble paws. The guitar is propped up on a plexiglass stand so Annie, the current feline guitarist, can drape her arm over the strings and pluck with her claws. Drummer Dakota uses two sticks on a fulcrum, so the sticks hit the drum head when she lifts her paws up and down.

And, even though the instruments are designed just for them, it doesn't mean the cats always want to play.

Like human divas, it takes a few metaphorical bowls of green M&M’s to get a cat on stage. Band members don't always get along, and sometimes clash during performances. "Annie will strum a couple notes and then she's all over in the drummer's section. That upsets Dakota and Dakota will hiss and storm off," Martin says. "This whole little episode would happen every show when Dakota would say, 'I can't work under these conditions!'" In the end, the band does come together to make raucous, if scattered, music, which is quite a feat for animals without opposable thumbs.

Why do we love Grumpy Cat?

Cats playing music and doing silly things have the power to transform the most grueling days. When work is bleak or home is lonely, a cat doing something ridiculous is a simple reminder that everything is going to be OK. But why is that, anyway? We asked some of Asheville's most prominent bloggers and Internet enthusiasts to give us their take on why people love videos of cats performing stunts.

The anonymous local blogger behind the popular Tumblr page whatshouldavlcallme is known for finding animated GIFs that both tease and celebrate typical Asheville situations and behavior, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air doing cartwheels to glorify “drink heaven at Asheville Vintner.” So when we asked the blogger (gender and name withheld to protect anonymity) to explain why our fair city loves cats doing tricks so much, we were referred to one of the first posts that brought the blog into Asheville's collective consciousness. Two furry kittens tap away at keyboards under the title, "The Best Bele Chere Band Would Be This," implying that what Bele Chere really needs is a stage full of performing cats. Which, considering the recent news, could be true.

Animal GIFs are crowd-pleasers on the blog. "I do not know if people identify themselves with their own personal spirit animals when they see them (so Asheville), or if they just love animals acting stupid or even human in some images," explains the blogger, who also promises to "sit front row on any circus-cat show."

Artist and self-described Instagram-aholic Robin Plemmons says that cat memes are so popular because of cats' dry sense of humor. "What makes a cat video funny to me is watching their furry, deadpan faces while they nonchalantly bang away on a keyboard or fall off of a moving treadmill,” she says. Be sure you bring your smart phone to the Acro-Cats show, since Plemmons has proclaimed circus cats as "prime Instagram material." Photos of cats strumming guitars will be much-lauded on Instagram.

Feline diversions

Chances are your cat can't walk a tightrope, play a guitar or ride a skateboard. Still, it’s possible to teach an average house cat a few tricks. Obviously, the show-off potential would be the biggest payoff, but there are larger rewards, too. Trainer Samantha Martin says that 10 minutes a day is enough to dramatically improve communication and give cats some much-needed stimulation. "People just need to learn to invest a little time in their cat, and they can have a cat that acts a little bit more like a dog, in the good ways, not the crotch-sniffing or under your foot all the time."

If you want to start your own clowder of circus cats, the Acro-Cats sell training kits at the end of each show, complete with a clicker, whistle and a “paw-tograph” from band manager Tuna. If you fall in love with a particular kitten, many of the cats are available for adoption. To reduce alcohol-fueled impulse buys (What? Would we drink beer before such a special show?), potential owners have to wait until the day the Acro-Cats leave town to adopt their cat. Anyone who doesn’t want a new pet after the kittens pile up for a feline pyramid and pull down an “adopt me” sign probably needs to get their heart checked.

Straight from the feline's mouth

Do the Acro-Cats love their jobs? There's no way to know without peering into their tiny hearts and minds. Black Mountain-based animal communicator Cindy Smith is known for her telepathic conversations with animals near and far. When Xpress asked her to speak with Acro-Cat star and band manager Tuna, she agreed. In a 30 minute phone conversation, Smith tapped into Tuna's thoughts while trainer Samantha Martin held the phone and confirmed Smith's observations. Here's what Tuna had to say:
Xpress: What is it feel like to be on stage?
It's thrilling. At first I wasn't sure that the applause meant that people liked what I was doing, but now I know that I'm the star of the show.
Do you like performing?
I'm bursting with creative energy and enthusiasm. This isn't a dull routine that I repeat over and over again. It's a team effort and my trainer Samantha isn't overly controlling. This keeps it fresh for me. It has its own creativity because Samantha allows me space. It's not a rote thing. I have wiggle room to be my own, brilliant creative self. 
Do you like your Latin band better than your old free-jazz outfit?
We're rocking more and there's more rhythm. I like playing cowbell. It's fun.
Is there anything you want to tell us?
I'm an independent kitty! I'm bomb-proof with nerves of steel. My life is so much more stimulating than the average cat. I feel acknowledged and appreciated. I'm a performing artist and an athlete. I'm brilliant.

who: The Amazing Acro-Cats
where: The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St.
when: March 28-31 & April 3-7. Multiple shows per day. ($18.

The Acro-Cats go viral

Xpress asked Tommy Calloway of the local comedy troupe The Feral Chihuahuas what he'd do with such talented cats.

I would train them to dance to "Gangnam Style" while simultaneously playing instruments and chasing balls of yarn. There would be an extensive breakdown in the middle featuring the Acro-Cats and the Feral Chihuahuas doing the "Harlem Shake" inside an aquarium full of water that was launched into space with a weather balloon by a child who's dad is the "Coolest Dad Ever.” The video would end with the Acro-Cats and the Feral Chihuahuas reenacting the "Jets and Sharks" scene from West Side Story until suddenly it turns into a giant cat and human flash mob of zombies performing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in a crowded train station. Minimum 2 billion YouTube views.

World wide cats

It takes a keen eye to uncover the best cat videos the Internet has to offer. Xpress asked the blogger behind and local artist and self-described “Instagram-aholic” Robin Plemmons to select their favorites.

Robin Plemmons picked this video of a cat-obsessed internet dater because it is “heartfelt and enthusiastic with a touch of lunacy.”

The anonymous blogger behind enjoys any Grumpy Cat video “because it feeds my bitter sarcastic side perfectly.”


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