Trainer and ‘Chief Human’ Samantha Martin arrives in Santa Monica with a feisty troupe of feline entertainers

By Michael Aushenker

win-0403-acrocats1Tuna, the star of the show, rings a bell. Then Buggles takes to her skateboard while Sookie pushes a shopping cart and Jax rolls in atop a barrel.

In the next act, the Rock Cats — a six-piece “noise band” — enter the spotlight and jam.

Starting tonight at Santa Monica Playhouse, a circus descends on downtown Santa Monica — but it’s not Cirque du Soleil. No, these are The Amazing Acro-Cats, and the performers, as the Chicago-based troupe’s name implies, are all feline.

“Cats are big right now,” said Samantha Martin, the Acro-Cats’ trainer and resident “chief human.”  “It’s a family friendly show, although more for adult cat lovers.”

Martin, who also helps animal actors prepare for film and television roles, has been training animals since age 10, when she taught the family dog, a golden lab named Tabitha, how to roll over.

After obtaining a degree in animal services, Martin began working as a trainer 25 years ago.

“As soon as I walked in the door, I knew this was my calling,” she said.

Martin soon formed the Rat Company and introduced the Acro-Rats, a trained rodent show.

“They jumped through hoops and even bowled,” she said. Yet, ultimately, “I couldn’t make a living on just rats.”

Martin expanded her operation into an exotic zoo featuring wild cats, alligators and tarantulas before concluding that dogs and cats were not only tried-and-true house pets but also the most in-demand animals in entertainment.

The Rock Cats was born a decade ago, with Oz on guitar, Nue on keyboards and Dakota on drums. Both Oz and Dakota have understudies: Annie on back-up guitar; Asti on percussion. While many rock musicians perform for such rewards as money and groupies, poached chicken, salmon and tuna fish motivate these hard rockers.

The band and brethren athletes Tuna, Buggles, Jax and the rest of the 13 performers  first hit the road five years ago.

The Acro-Cats show has also become a vehicle to find homes for homeless pets.

“Most of the cats are former orphans and strays,” said Martin, who through her company has helped find homes for 134 cats and kittens since 2009.

The Acro-Cats made their Los Angeles-area debut in North Hollywood two years ago and are headed for The Underground Theater in Hollywood after their stint of Westside shows.

Martin relishes her job because “I get to be with animals that I love and I get to travel. Where most people have to leave their pets and go to work, because my pets are my work, I get to be with them all the time.”

The Amazing Acro-Cats perform at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from April 3 to April 20 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. $25. (310) 394-9779;