Performing Cats

Cats, unlike dogs, are not amused by, nor do they in any way take an

interest in what are termed "tricks." Performing dogs will sit about

their master watching anxiously for their turn, and they have been known

on more than one occasion to slip before the dog that has next jump

through the hoop or over a stick, barking merrily, exulting in having

excelled the other; generally they await with intense eagerness the

agility of the others and strenuously try to surpass them. Possibly this

is so from the long time the dog has been under the dominion of man, and

taught by him how to be of service, either in hunting, sporting,

shepherding, watching; in a sense his friend, though more his bond

or slave, even to dragging carts, waggons, and sleighs, to fetch and

carry, even to smuggle. Long teaching, persistent teaching from time

immemorial has undoubtedly had its due effect, and in some instances,

if not all, has been transmitted, such as in the pointer and setter,

which particular sections have been known to require little or no

present training, taking to their duties naturally, receiving but little

guidance as to how much, when, and where such instinctive qualities are


With the cat it is widely different. Beyond being the "necessary" cat,

the pet cat or kitten, it never has been an object of interest, beyond

that of keeping from increase those veritable plagues, rats and mice;

the enormous use it has thus been to man has had but scant

acknowledgment, never thoroughly appreciated, vastly underrated, with

but little attention not only to its beauty, nor in modifying its nature

to the actual requirements of civilisation. The cat through long ages

has had, as it were, to shift for itself; with the few approved, with

the many not only neglected, but in bygone days, and with some even in

the present, it has been, and is looked on as a thing that is not to be

cared for, or domesticated, but often absolutely ill-treated, not

because there has been wrong done, but because it is a cat. I heard a

man of "gentle blood" once say that there was no good in a cat, and the

only use they were, as far as he could see, was as an animal to try

the courage of his terriers upon.

Happily all are not alike, and so the cat survives, and by the present

generation is petted and noticed with a growing interest. Though long

closely connected with man in many ways, still, as I have before said,

it has been left to itself to a certain degree. In no way, or but

slightly, has it been guided; and thus, as a domestic animal, it has

become what it is--one repelling most attempts to make it of the same

kind of value as the dog; its great powers of observation, coupled with

timidity, make a barrier to its being trained into that which its nature

dislikes; and its natural and acquired repugnance to confinement and

tuition prevent it--at least at present--from being "the humble

servant," as the dog, "past and present," has been and is.

Studying closely the habits of the cat for years, as I have, I believe

there is a natural sullen antipathy to being taught or restrained, or

made to do anything to which its nature or feelings are averse; and

this arises from long-continued persecution and no training. Try, for

instance, to make a cat lie still if it wants to go out. You may hold it

at first, then gently relinquish your grasp, stroke it, talk to it,

fondle it, until it purrs, and purrs with seeming pleasure, but it

never once forgets it is restrained, and the first opportunity it

will make a sudden dash, and is--gone.

However, all animals, more or less, may be trained, and the cat, of

course, is among them, and a notable one. By bringing them up among

birds, such as canaries, pigeons, chickens, and ducklings, it will

respect and not touch them, while those wild will be immediately


One of the best instances of this was a small collection of animals and

birds in a large cage that used to be shown by a man by the name of

Austin, and to which I have already referred. This man was a lover and

trainer of animal life, and an adept. His "Happy Family" generally

consisted of a cat or two, some kittens, rats, mice, rabbits, guinea

pigs, an owl, a kestrel falcon, starlings, goldfinches, canaries,

etc.--a most incongruous assembly. Yet among them all there was a

freedom of action, a self-reliance, and an air of happiness that I

have never seen in "performing cats." Mr. Austin informed me that he had

been a number of years studying their different natures, but that he

found the cats the most difficult to deal with, only the most gentle

treatment accomplishing the object he had in view. Any fresh

introduction had to be done by degrees, and shown outside first for some

time. It was quite apparent, however, that the cats were quite at their

ease, and I have seen a canary sitting on the head of the cat, while a

starling was resting on the back. But all are gone--Austin and his

pets--and no other reigns in his stead.

Occasionally one sees, at the corners of some of the London streets, a

man who professes to have trained cats and birds; the latter,

certainly, are clever, but the former have a frightened, scared look,

and seem by no means comfortable. I should say the tuition was on

different lines to that of Austin. The man takes a canary, opens a cat's

mouth, puts it in, takes it out, makes the cat, or cats, go up a short

ladder and down another; then they are told to fight, and placed in

front of each other; but fight they will not with their fore-paws, so

the master moves their paws for them, each looking away from the

other. There is no training in this but fear. There is an innate

timidity, the offspring of long persecution, in the cat that prevents,

as a rule, its performing in public. Not so the dog; time and place

matter not to him; from generation to generation he has been used to


In "Cats Past and Present," by Champfleury, there are descriptions of

performing cats, and one Valmont de Bomare mentions that in a booth at

the fair of St. Germain's, during the eighteenth century, there was a

cat concert, the word "Miaulique," in huge letters, being on the

outside. In 1789 there is an account of a Venetian giving cat concerts,

and the facsimile of a print of the seventeenth century picturing a cat


"In 1758, or the following year, Bisset, the famous animal trainer,

hired a room near the Haymarket, at which he announced a public

performance of a 'CATS' OPERA,' supplemented by tricks of a horse, a

dog, and some monkeys, etc. The 'Cats' Opera' was attended by crowded

houses, and Bisset cleared a thousand pounds in a few days. After a

successful season in London, he sold some of the animals, and made a

provincial tour with the rest, rapidly accumulating a considerable

fortune."--MR. FROST'S Old Showman.

"Many years ago a concert was given at Paris, wherein cats were the

performers. They were placed in rows, and a monkey beat time to them.

According as he beat the time so the cats mewed; and the historian of

the FACT relates that the diversity of the tones which they emitted

produced a very ludicrous effect. This exhibition was announced to the

Parisian public by the title of Concert Miaulant."--Zoological


Another specimen of discipline is to be found in "Menageries." The

writer says: "Cats may be taught to perform tricks, such as leaping over

a stick, but they always do such feats unwillingly. There is at present

an exhibition of cats in Regent Street, who, at the bidding of their

master, an Italian, turn a wheel and draw up water in a bucket, ring a

bell; and in doing these things begin, continue, and stop as they are

commanded. But the commencez, continuez, arretez of their keeper

is always enforced with a threatening eye, and often with a severe blow;

and the poor creatures exhibit the greatest reluctance to proceed with

their unnatural employments. They have a subdued and piteous look; but

the scratches upon their master's arms show that his task is not

always an easy one."

Of performing cats on the stage, there have been several "companies" of

late in London, one of which I went to see at the royal Aquarium,

Westminster; and I am bound to say that the relations between master and

cats were on a better footing than any that have hitherto come under my

notice. On each side of the stage there were cat kennels, from which the

cats made their appearance on a given signal, ran across, on or over

whatever was placed between, and disappeared quickly into the opposite

kennels. But about it all there was a decided air of timidity, and an

eagerness to get the performance over, and done with it. When the

cats came out they were caressed and encouraged, which seemed to have a

soothing effect, and I have a strong apprehension that they received

some dainty morsel when they reached their destination. One ran up a

pole at command, over which there was a cap at the top, into which it

disappeared for a few seconds, evidently for some reason, food

perhaps. It then descended. But before this supreme act several cats

had crossed a bridge of chairs, stepping only on the backs, until they

reached the opposite house or box into which to retire. The process was

repeated, and the performance varied by two cats crossing the bridge

together, one passing over and the other under the horizontal rung

between the seat and the top of the chair. A long plank was next

produced, upon which was placed a row of wine-bottles at intervals; and

the cats ran along the plank, winding in and out between the bottles,

first to the right, then to the left, without making a mistake. This

part of the performance was varied by placing on the top of each bottle

a flat disc of thick wood; one of the cats strode then from disc to

disc, without displacing or upsetting a bottle, while the other animal

repeated its serpentine walk on the plank below. The plank being

removed, a number of trestles were brought in, and placed at intervals

in a row between the two sets of houses, when the cats, on being called,

jumped from trestle to trestle, varying the feat by leaping through a

hoop, which was held up by the trainer between the trestles. To this

succeeded a performance on the tight rope, which was not the least

curious part of the exhibition. A rope being stretched across the arena

from house to house, the cats walked across in turn, without making a

mistake. Some white rats were then brought and placed at intervals along

the rope, when the cats, re-crossing from one end to the other, strode

over the rats without injuring them. A repetition of this feat was

rendered a little more difficult by substituting for rats, which sat

pretty quietly in one place, several white mice and small birds, which

were more restless, and kept changing their positions. The cats

re-crossed the rope, and passed over all these obstacles without even

noticing the impediments placed in their way, with one or two

exceptions, when they stopped, and cosseted one or more of the white

rats, two of which rode triumphantly on the back of a large black cat.

Perhaps the most odd performance was that of "Cat Harris," an imitator

of the voice of cats in 1747.

"When Foote first opened the Haymarket Theatre, amongst other projects

he proposed to entertain the public with imitation of cat-music. For

this purpose he engaged a man famous for his skill in mimicking the

mewing of the cat. This person was called 'Cat Harris.' As he did not

attend the rehearsal of this odd concert, Foote desired Shuter would

endeavour to find him out and bring him with him. Shuter was directed

to some court in the Minories, where this extraordinary musician lived;

but, not being able to find the house, Shuter began a cat solo; upon

this the other looked out of the window, and answered him with a cantata

of the same sort. 'Come along,' said Shuter; 'I want no better

information that you are the man. Foote stays for us; we cannot begin

the cat-opera without you.'"--CASSELL'S Old and New London, vol. iv.

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