It’s tough to imagine anything that could make The Amazing Acro-Cats — a traveling troupe of house cats that ride skateboards, play musical instruments and sometimes get bored and wander off into the audience — even more awesome.
As it turns out, there is something: The group has helped save the lives of more than 200 kittens over the past several years.
“The team [of cats] themselves are all former rescues and strays,” Acro-Cats founder Samantha Martin told HuffPost.
In 2009 — about four years after Martin started the group — she got inspired to take an even more active role in helping felines in need. She was hoping to adopt a kitten she could train as a new member of the Acro-Cats. Her search led her to a crowded, high-kill shelter in Chicago.
A worker there told Martin that several kittens desperately needed foster homes, and that whichever ones weren’t housed immediately would likely end up on that night’s euthanasia list.
“I took all 12,” Martin said, which she called a “life-changing moment.”
Fostering a shelter pet means taking in the animal until it finds a permanent adoptive home. Kittens are usually highly adoptable, but animal shelters are often not well-equipped to care for orphan kittens younger than 8 weeks old, as they need bottle feeding and overnight care. Plus, animals typically find foster homes less stressful than a shelter environment.
Martin didn’t end up making any of those kittens part of her, er, purrr-manent cast, she did help find good homes for all of them. And those first dozen kittens started a lasting legacy for Martin and the Acro-Cats.
These days, Martin, her human assistants and 17 cats — 16 performers plus “Captain Patch,” a one-eyed, non-performing feline who belongs to an assistant — tend to travel the country with a few foster kittens in tow.
The kittens reside in a deluxe three-level space inside a specially outfitted cat bus.
“The foster kittens never have problems adapting to life on the tour bus,” Martin said. “Since they are kittens, they’re much more adaptable to new places and experiences.”
Over the years, Martin and human Acro-Cats team members have fostered an estimated 209 kittens. Most have found new homes, although a few especially promising ones have wound up sticking around to become performers.
Because Acro-Cats tour the United States, their kittens come from all over.
“We try to partner with a local rescue and donate a portion of the [show’s] proceeds,” she said. “Sometimes people just contact us. It can be very random.”
The Acro-Cats are also improving feline lives in another way — by proving that yes, cats can be trained.
“A lot of cats are relinquished because of behavioral problems,” Martin said. “And the reason they have behavioral problems is because they’re bored.”
Of course, not all behavioral issues are due to boredom; owners should check with a vet if their cat is acting in an alarming way. But boredom can often lead to destructive behavior, aggression and even health problems.
“They need interaction,” Martin said. “They need a way to use their brain. Some cats more than others.”
That’s where training can help. Martin stressed the importance of using only positive reinforcement ― that means no punishments ― when working with your cats. She uses clicker training, which involves getting cats to associate a clicking sound with a desired behavior and subsequent reward. (You can learn more about clicker training, and training your cat, here.)
Your cats may never be ready for primetime, but Martin said teaching your pets some basic tricks is a great way to keep them mentally stimulated and strengthen your bond. She recommended starting with short sessions of around 10 minutes a day.
After all, you don’t want to overdo it. Even Martin’s professional troupe has plenty of off-time.
“The cats are my pets,” Martin said, explaining that they roam her home like normal house cats when they aren’t on tour. “People always ask, are they ever allowed to just be cats? They’re always just cats.”
You can see The Amazing Acro-Cats’ tour schedule here.