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Samantha Martin has known what she’s wanted to do with her life since she was 7 and began working toward the goal when she was 10.
It all started with the command, “Sit.”
“I wanted to be an animal trainer,” said Martin, a Chicago resident.
After training the family dog, she moved on to training rats when she was 16, then earned an animal services degree in college and worked various animal-related jobs, from groomer (which she said she just didn’t have the knack for) to veterinarian technician (again, it didn’t take) to working in a pet shop and at an animal shelter.
Animal training was where she excelled and what she enjoyed the most.
Martin wanted to segue her skills into training animals to work in film and television.
Instead, she ran away and joined the circus.
From Luna a star is born
About 10 years ago, Martin’s neighbor asked her for a favor.
Could Martin watch her cat, Luna, while the neighbor went back home to Poland for a little while?
Martin agreed, not knowing Luna was pregnant.
The neighbor never returned from Poland, and Martin was left with a litter of beautiful white kittens, one of which was quickly named Tuna. The others were adopted.
“Tuna was born, and I discovered that she was kind of a genius,” Martin said. “She is a workaholic who wanted to learn at an early age.”
She played a “killer cat” in a film when she was 9 months old, Martin said.
Meanwhile, Martin was part of a wildlife education show, Festival of Cultures, that traveled around the Chicago area, introducing school children to different animals and traditions from around the globe.
During her down time, Martin entertained herself and kept the cats busy by training them and teaching them little tricks, like playing the piano.
“Piano is easy to teach to animals,” Martin said.
Soon enough, people would be walking by and catch a glimpse of the cat band.
“Hey, wanna see something cool?” Martin would ask, and the band would start playing.
When the Festival of Cultures started winding down, Martin knew that she enjoyed traveling and working with cats.
She ditched the wildlife and focused on training felines.
The cats learned to jump hurdles, walk a high wire, ride a skateboard.
“All the tricks are based on things that the cats do on their own,” Martin said. “They are my pets; they aren’t caged animals that I’ll pull out to perform. I know them. ... Some are good climbers; some are nosy. I use their natural ability and behaviors, and find a cute trick to go with that.”
They were brilliant while performing at Martin’s home — it was their home too, a natural environment where they were comfortable and not distracted.
Their first show, a gig Martin found on craigslist.com for an art gallery opening looking for off-beat acts, was “a huge failure,” Martin said. “They finally settled down and did some tricks.”
The act must have caught someone’s eye, though, because Martin booked another art gallery show.
“It kind of took off from there,” said Martin, who will bring her Amazing Acro-Cats and the Rock Cats show to the Port Tobacco Theater in La Plata May 3 through 5.
Martin and her Amazing Acro-Cats started performing at pet expos and conventions, and she soon was searching for venues to and from the expo locations to stage shows.
“We took the plunge and rented the first theater. The shows got bigger and better,” Martin said. “We were really on to something.”
Christy Bell, a booking agent who works with Martin, said the show has a following.
“If people know about this, they come to see it,” Bell said.
About four years ago, Martin took on the task of rescuing and fostering cats and kittens, taking care of 106 of them over the years, training them to do cute little tricks, helping to find them a “forever home.”
She is taking care of three kittens now that may be available for adoption during the La Plata visit, and a portion of the ticket sales will be donated to the Humane Society of Charles County.
Rescuing, fostering and adopting kittens and cats was a great addition to the Amazing Acro-Cats shows, Bell said.
“It is a natural evolution,” she said. “It makes so much sense.”
As the popularity of the shows and the reputation of the performers grow, two of the cats — Tuna and Buggles — have started Twitter accounts and have engaged in a Twitter war with each other.
Tuna bashes Buggles, who is busy working on a time machine that currently only goes back 30 seconds.
The Rock Cats also have a fan page on Facebook.
There are only four cat circuses in the country, said Martin, who is embarking on a tour of the East Coast.
“My show is loosely run, the cats run the show,” she said. “It’s cats being cats. They do amazing things while they’re being cats.”
Martin hasn’t abandoned training animals for film and television; her cats have been featured in Tidy Cats and Purina ads, but the road show is keeping her busy.
“I always knew I’d be working with animals,” she said. “I really like it. It’s like being in a weird snow globe.”