Performing rescue animals have a ball in Popovich Comedy Pet Theater 

  • Courtesy Popovich Comedy Pet Theater

y cats, like all cats, really, are single-minded about their desires. I am utterly powerless to stop Miss Cleo from, say, jumping on my lap while I'm drinking my morning coffee, though I always hope that accidentally spilling it on her enough times might someday do the training for me.

So when I saw Gregory Popovich's performing cats straddling poles, standing on balls, hopping out of boxes and leaping onto his shoulders, I felt — alongside the usual awe and amusement — an overwhelming sense of jealousy. Naturally, I was desperate to find out how he trained the untrainable.

"I use their natural habits," he says. "What the cats or dogs do in my show, they usually do in their normal life or in nature." For instance, cats who love climbing trees make excellent pole-climbers, and those who naturally like to play with balls may enjoy balancing on one, too.

Popovich is a fourth-generation Russian circus performer and animal trainer. Around 30 years ago, he came to America for a gig with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and began performing his own show in Las Vegas in the '90s. The three rings of the "greatest show on earth" were distracting, he says, and performers were always competing for the audience's attention. He wanted to bring a more traditional, European-style circus to the American stage.

Traveling with more than 30 animals and 10 talented humans, Popovich's Comedy Pet Theater impresses on a number of levels. Popovich himself holds a Guinness world record for his juggling, and his brand of comedy (expressed in this show through a narrative about an out-of-work clown) comes from a traditional, highly physical method of clowning. Plus his co-stars of both the human and animal variety include acrobats of all stripes, as well as 14 house cats, 12 dogs, a few geese, a parrot, a dove, some mice and a miniature horse (his special guest star). Popovich considers each of these pets to be members of his own family, and all have been rescued from animal shelters.

Popovich was unfamiliar with the concept of animal shelters when he came to America, and when he learned the sometimes ridiculous reasons why people abandon their pets, he was heartbroken. "For me it was so painful, I decided from this point [to] work with animals only from the shelter," he says. Not every animal has what it takes to be onstage — according to Popovich, some cats can even suffer from stage fright — but Popovich promises that he commits to take care of an animal the moment he adopts it, whether it becomes a performer or not.

For him, the most important thing, aside from supporting rescue animals, is to ensure that his pets are having fun, doing the things they would want to do anyway, but on a grander scale. While that doesn't leave me much hope for Miss Cleo (if she did anything on a grander scale we would no longer have furniture or carpeting), it certainly makes for an animal-friendly circus that gives me hope for other pets and their humans.


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