I found my inner feline by working for the world’s finest cat circus

If you were to ever meet me, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you would take away at least one fact: I love cats. I’m the friend on Facebook people come to when they have cat content to share. Mere acquaintances fill my wall with cat memes—all of which I’ve already seen—and I “like” them because I have an identity to maintain. 

In addition to loving cats in the abstract, I also love them in the concrete: I own two (you may remember when I dosed them with Meowijuana) and care for them immensely. I reported on a job opening with a cat circus, the Acrocats, and the only reason I didn’t apply myself was that I couldn’t bear to leave my cats behind for a life on the road. It was due to profound cat-love that I did not serve the greater Acrocat good.

Found drawing at the merch booth

Found drawing at the merch booth

Jené Gutierrez

But when I learned the Acrocats were purr-forming in my town, I knew I had to get a taste of the work involved in such an elaborate and impressive production. I wanted to meet these talented cats, and I wanted to be a part of their world—if not forever, then for one weekend over which I was committed to getting my hands dirty… ahem, purr-ty. (Ugh, sorry, that doesn’t even work. Cat puns are too obvious and easy, so you, dear reader, will have to rely on your own imaginative prowess to create the pun-filled essay of your dreams.)

Cluck Norris, the act's resident chicken

Cluck Norris, the act’s resident chicken

Jené Gutierrez

I first heard about Samantha Martin’s group of talented animals five years ago, when my friend Polly Smith posted a status on Facebook asking for help hanging posters for the show around town. After watching some videos of the cats doing tricks, I promptly volunteered to help, resulting in a free ticket to the performance. (Smith has been the act’s touring manager for the past few years now.) 

Martin’s show then was impressive, but, as I would discover, not nearly as evolved as the show that currently tours. There are more band members and more instruments and more props for the cats to climb and balance on. More tricks and more gasps and more organization. More awe and intrigue. More litter and claws. 

One thing remained the same, though: the show’s star, Tuna. We volunteers were warned not to touch this aggressive diva; Martin and her assistants also leave her alone for the most part. Though an incredibly consistent performer, Tuna rejects intimacy like a true jaded star. She once even starred in a short film as a killer cat

Here’s a stealthy photo I took of her on the cat bus:

Tuna the jaded diva

Tuna the jaded diva

Jené Gutierrez

Because I was running around, helping with any aspect of the production that needed me, I didn’t have an opportunity to speak much with Martin—the most time I spent with her was when I was hanging out in the cats’ dressing room and she came in and began to address each cat, ensuring that they were wearing their proper scrunchied collars. 

Yes, the most words I heard her utter during the two full days of four performances were addressed to her cats. She seemed busy, and most of my questions were better answered by one of the crew—Polly, Charmaine, or Seunga. Upon immersing myself in their universe, I can confidently say that caring for these cats, animals known for unpredictable temperaments, is the act’s number one priority. The entire training method derives from positive reinforcement (clicker training) and relies on an individual cat’s strengths to determine which tricks it’s best suited to. The treats they receive in exchange for their tricks are cooked chicken or fish, depending on which the cat prefers. Clicker training kits are even sold at the show and are not without merit—I overheard someone brag at the merchandise booth that a friend’s daughter had already taught her cat to jump through a small hoop the night she arrived home with the kit! As Martin explains in her act, cats are trainable. They just liked to be paid for their time.

Cats' dressing room

Cats’ dressing room

Jené Gutierrez

Cats' dressing room

Cats’ dressing room

Jené Gutierrez

Make no mistake: Working with this act was physically exhausting. I helped to literally herd the fourteen cats (plus one groundhog, one rat, and one chicken) to and from the touring bus, assembled clicker training kits to be sold at the merchandise booth, worked the merchandise booth, followed the meows of cats that had strayed from the stage, thoroughly cleaned “cat city” (the main animal area of the tour bus), cleaned litter boxes, broke down the merchandise booth and the stage set, and hauled equipment and props to the bus outside after their final performance.

Merchandise booth display

Merchandise booth display

Jené Gutierrez

Theater lobby cuteness

Theater lobby cuteness

Jené Gutierrez

What made the exertion worth it was not the joyful expressions and exhalations of children’s faces—in fact, I barely interacted with the crowd—but the thirty intimate minutes I spent focused on cuing tortoiseshell Sookie for a trick during each of the four performances.

Blurry photo of a cat car trick

Blurry photo of a cat car trick

Jené Gutierrez

Without a doubt, sharing the stage with the cat band, cuing Sookie to play the chimes for a chicken treat, was my shining moment—not only externally, as the audience got to watch me conjure the magic that is a trained cat, but also internally. With each cue Sookie transformed into tingling music, I felt my own power grow, my own ability to orchestrate the moves and rituals of my life, the way I could perhaps call on my internal Sookie to pay attention and create an equitable relationship of give and take within a system where I thrive. 

Through Sookie, I had an epiphanic moment where I felt called to navigate my own life by making sure I always take my cut of the “chicken” for performing, that I take what’s mine in the exchange of effort related to living in the world. That yes, I will use my claws if I perceive a vulnerability in the exchange, in the understood agreement. I am only a human animal and so will react according to what’s best for myself in a situation where I am perceived as weaker.

Pudge was one of the two cats you could pet after the show

Pudge was one of the two cats you could pet after the show

Jené Gutierrez

I knew by orchestrating Sookie’s movements that I was accessing a deep well of magic and possibility. And sure, I may sometimes be stuck in a crate or in the back of a bus, but I eat like a fucking king and get to regularly cuddle with others, sometimes in piles, our fur making each other softer than we ever thought we could be. And I definitely don’t mind being worshipped for making a few swats at an object in the air.

Aren’t we all just swatting at the air in hopes of a reward? Perhaps we become anxious after the first few swats that no treat has appeared, but we are steadfast in our faith that enough swats will eventually produce that longed-for snack. The forces which orchestrate this negotiation are beyond our control. When we are born into a system, we are tasked with figuring out how to make it work for us and to understand our limitations, scratching a hand or two if someone is undermining our attempts to get what we deserve. 

In accessing the energy of the act and weaving myself into the performance, by syncing up with the ritual of this circus, I felt strong, and I felt good. It was as if I had looked behind the curtain at some ancient and eternal cabal that revealed to me that my core essence is harnessed in my connection with others. This is what Sookie taught me. Or maybe it was just a basic Pavlovian response, in which case, B-O-R-I-N-G.

Between the curtains

Between the curtains

Jené Gutierrez

So was this my “dream job”? It’s hard to say. While I relished spending time with these special animals, cleaning up after them and moving their shit around was not my idea of fun. All I know is that sometimes when I’m lying in bed, on the edge of sleep, images of the day flash in the darkness, and Sookie’s face will stare back at me. I see her regard me with anticipation and longing, aware of our combined strength, and the delicate precipice upon which our fundamental connection is forged. 

Just before dozing off, I’ll vow to myself to look upon every looming and forthcoming cliff with the same resolve and forthrightness that Sookie the tortoiseshell cat has bestowed upon our relationship. It’s the least I can do to honor the Acrocat legacy.

Kitty pile with my beloved Sookie at the helm

Kitty pile with my beloved Sookie at the helm

Jené Gutierrez

Photos via Jené Gutierrez

Jené Gutierrez

Jené Gutierrez

Jené Gutierrez is a reporter whose work focuses on feminism, politics, and internet culture.