These Circus Cats Will Jump Through Hoops — Thanks To Training (And Treats)

Nov 15, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 9:47 pm

I've owned cats my entire life. But it never occurred to me, until I went to the Big Apple Circus, that you could train them to do tricks. Like, really impressive tricks.

The latest edition of the Big Apple Circus features the usual assortment of acrobatics and death-defying acts. It also features The Savitsky Cats — a Ukrainian mother-and-daughter team and their nine talented fluffballs, who slalom through ladders, jump through hoops and scamper up a pole to a tiny platform before launching onto a pillow 20 feet below.

Honestly, I'd never seen anything like it. Here's a taste, from their appearance on America's Got Talent.

YouTube

So I met with the Savitskys — along with a gorgeous white cat named Linda — in a tiny basement room at Lincoln Center in New York. Svitlana doesn't speak any English, so her daughter, Maryna, spoke for both of them. (Linda occasionally chimed in.)

All of their cats are adopted or rescued, Maryna said. Her mother has "a good eye" for which cats have potential.

"As soon as she see the face of the cat, she already know: OK, this will be a good performer," Maryna said.

Maryna (left) and Svitlana are the human trainers of the acrobatic feline troupe The Savitsky Cats.
TheGingerb3ardMen / Courtesy of Big Apple Circus

As you might imagine, Maryna said that "a lot of time and a lot of patience" is required to train a cat. She starts by just observing her cats' natural behavior.

"Maybe a cat [has] some funny way of walking," Maryna said. "So you just see it and you just, a little bit, correct and improve it. And it became a little trick for you and the cat. And after, you just kind of improve, improve, improve until the cat is doing what you want her to do."

Apart from the actual tricks, the other part of the Savitsky method is teaching the cats to get over their stage fright — to be unafraid of the lights, the music, the crowd and so on. The day I went, one cat was hesitant to do a trick.

"You cannot force a cat to do something unless she wanted to do [it]," Maryna said. "Until she wants, she will not do it."

Of course, Maryna added, you can always tempt a recalcitrant cat with a little ... quid pro quo.

"The main treat is petting," she said. "And then a lot of treats — tasty treats."

After their engagement with the Big Apple Circus, The Savitsky Cats will be the halftime entertainment for the NBA All-Star Game.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The latest edition of the Big Apple Circus features plenty of gravity-defying performances. But there's one act that seems absolutely brain-defying to reporter Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: I have owned cats my entire life. But it never occurred to me until I went to the Big Apple Circus that you could train them to do tricks - like, really, really impressive tricks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singer) What's new, pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa...

LUNDEN: The Savitsky Cats, a Ukrainian mother-and-daughter team, along with nine talented fluff balls, have cats doing slaloms through ladders, jumping through hoops and scampering up a pole to a tiny platform, then jumping into a pillow 20 feet below.

(APPLAUSE)

LUNDEN: Honestly I've never seen anything like it.

MARYNA SAVITSKY: My name is Maryna. And here's with us is my mom Svitlana. And we Savitsky Cats' family.

LUNDEN: I met with the Savitskys, along with a gorgeous white cat named Linda, in a tiny, cinderblock basement room at Lincoln Center.

SAVITSKY: My mom just have a good eye. As soon as she see, like, the face of the cat, she you already know, OK, this will be a good performer. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to train a cat. But the first thing you should start is get acquainted with your cat. Just observe what you cat want to do playing or just walking. Maybe a cat have, like, some funny way of walking. So you just see it, and you just a little bit correct. And improve it. And it became a little trick for you and the cat. And after, you just kind of improve, improve, improve, until cat is doing what you want her to do.

(APPLAUSE)

SAVITSKY: The other part of our training is to teach cat not to be afraid of anything - a light, music, applause and all this thing.

LUNDEN: The day I went, one of the cats was hesitant to do one of the tricks.

SAVITSKY: You cannot force a cat to do something unless she wanted to do. So until she wants to, she will not do it.

LUNDEN: Of course, Maryna adds you can always tempt the recalcitrant cats with a little quid pro quo.

SAVITSKY: The main treat is petting, a lot of petting. So we just kind of pet, pet. And a lot of, like, treats - tasty treats.

LUNDEN: After their engagement with the Big Apple Circus, the Savitsky Cats will be the halftime entertainment for the NBA All-Star game.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY GOODMAN SONG, "SING, SING, SING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.