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You can teach an old - or young - cat new tricks

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Tuna, star of "The Rock Cats," a traveling cat circus playing Austin Nov. 12-18

Tuna began the inspiration.

No, not the fish, but a white cat named Tuna who was rescued as a kitten 10 years ago and adopted by Chicago-based animal trainer Samantha Martin.

“Tuna doesn’t really even like to cuddle or even be petted that much, but she loves to do tricks,” says Martin.

Now, Tuna is the star and lead guitarist of the Rock Cats, perhaps the world’s only touring feline band. Martin, the Rock Cats and the Acro-Cats, Martin’s troupe of skateboard-riding hoop-jumping cats, come to Austin for their fourth appearance at the Blue Theater Nov. 12-18.

If the show is a charming, off-beat and family-friendly celebration of all things feline, it’s also a message and an education on how humans can get along better with their cat companions.

“More cats end up back in shelters than dogs because cat owners don’t take the time to develop a relationship with a cat,” Martin said. “Dogs demand our attention, but cats are more subtle about it even though they need our attention.”

“People often don’t interact enough with cats. And then the cats get bored and act out.”

Martin uses a clicker training method that includes a reward with a treat to teach the cats their show-biz steps.

She also promotes clicker training for the average house cat as way to alleviate bad behavior. “Training creates a bond between a cat and its owner,” she says. “But you need to learn their language.”

Martin shows each audience how her cats readily hop into their carriers — a skill important, Martin stresses, for every cat and cat owner to learn.

“In an emergency, if you need to evacuate your house, or even if you’re going to the vet, your cat will learn that the carrier is a place of safety, not stress.”

Martin sells her clicker-training kit at each show. “Training is more of a negotiation with a cat than it is with a dog,” she says. “But cats love the mental stimulus of training and play and it makes them ultimately a happier animal.”

Martin’s Rock Cats and Acro-Cats — all rescue and shelter animals — are her personal pets who live with her in her Chicago-area home. “I have our props from the show set up in my living room,” Martin says. “The cats practice their tricks just about every day.”

On stage, the Acro-Cats climb ropes, ring bells, run an agility course and push a shopping cart, among other amazing feats.

And when the show hits the road, the cats travel like the rock stars they are in a bus customized inside with a complete cat-friendly environment of cat trees and perching places.

The show travels with two to six foster kittens, each of whom has already been taught a trick by Martin. The foster kittens participate in the show and adoption applications are taken. One lucky family in each city gets to adopt an Acro-Cat to-be.

True to their rock star cool, the cats are tuned into social media. They have more than 4,000 Facebook fans. And Tuna has a Twitter account (@Tunathecat) and she frequently gets in Twitter spats with Acro-cat Buggles (@Bugglesdacat).

"The Acro-Cats Ambush Austin Again"