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

The Savitsky Cats are now scampering through New York City's Lincoln Center as one of the new star attractions of the Big Apple Circus.

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.

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
Maryna (left) and Svitlana are the human trainers of the acrobatic feline troupe The Savitsky Cats.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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