Amazing Acro-Cats show claws into Detroit this week

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Shockingly, Samantha Martin’s rat circus wasn’t taking off. When the Chicago-based animal trainer switched to rescue cats, however, business started to boom.

Now, a decade later, Martin and her team spend more than half the year on the road with a show called the Amazing Acro-Cats. Often selling out small venues across the country, the show features an all-cat band that really plays instruments — you may have seen them on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” last year — and cats who can ride skateboards, walk tightropes, balance on balls and jump through hoops.

The show, which comes to Detroit this week to perform four shows at the Jam Handy building, tours in a “catified” 45-foot bus that’s reworked to make a dozen or so cats and four humans as comfortable as possible while traveling.

One of the humans on the tour, Polly Smith, acts as production and promotions manager. She teamed up with Martin in 2010 after booking the troupe for a string of sold-out events.

Smith says Martin started out as an animal trainer for film, television and commercials. The show keeps her cats trained up between jobs.

“You really have to see it to believe it,” says Smith of the hourlong show. “It’s like internet cat videos, but live. It’s real. I think that’s the one thing that people always ask me ... are you real? Are you serious? Yes.”

Smith says Martin does fall back to her days as a rat trainer by adding a few of the rodents in the show, as well as other animals. The cats, which are trained with positive reinforcement and clicker training, are still the stars.

They are still cats, though, and Smith says it’s not uncommon for a few of the furry stars to decide not to perform and instead to mosey through the audience. One cat in particular, a black and white feline named Jax (he’s named after the old beer brand), is known for this type of behavior.

Most of the Acro-Cats shows involve some sort of animal rescue element. A portion of proceeds from the Detroit shows will benefit the Royal Oak-based Animal House of South East Michigan, and a new animal rescue, Motor City Kitty, will host an adoption event on site.

(313) 222-2402

Twitter: @melodybaetens

Amazing Acro-Cats featuring Tuna and the Rock Cats

7 p.m. Thurs.-Fri., 1 p.m. Sun. and 7 p.m. Mon.

The Jam Handy

2900 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit

$23, $33 for VICP