Gregory Popovich’s Comedy Pet Theater features a cast of 14 cats and 12 dogs that join him, acrobats, clowns and geese in a fast-paced show for all ages.
With an opportunity to interview Popovich from his Las Vegas base, my first, most obvious question was, “How do you train a cat?”
His training techniques are positive, reinforced with treats, Popovich said, and they differ with dogs and cats. Dogs can be voice trained, as they understand commands and react to positive feedback, but cats are more independent.
“You see what they like to do, how they like to play, what’s their favorite treat, and make tricks to fit the cat,” he said.
He asks the cat to do only one trick, but it may not always be in the mood, so he has backup ready during a performance.
“If the cat ignores me, I ask the other cat to do the same trick.”
All of his animals are adopted from shelters, and he watches for certain traits when he first meets them.
“I look for a pet with high energy, but not hyper, and one who is not phlegmatic. I try to find a cat who loves to play, and I bring it to my house. When I adopt it, it becomes a member of my family.”
When finding a dog, he also looks for high energy, but he focuses on personality.
“I look in its face, look in its eyes, to find some communication. A dog may not be a good jumper, but makes it up with personality.”
He said a puppy in a shelter may be afraid and stressed. After he gets the dog home and gets to know it, he bases what it’s going to do in the show on its personality. Each dog and cat is trained alone at home before it joins the others. If, for some reason, it doesn’t work out for the show, it becomes a family pet.
Popovich’s wife, Izolda, and daughter, Anastasia, help to train the animals and are also part of the show.
The dogs and cats perform and travel together, Popovich said. “They grow up together and are friends, but they do need their privacy. I have separate houses for dogs and for cats, they’re not together 24/7.”
When on tour, they travel in a custom trailer with air conditioning and heat, he explained, “They are used to driving.”
When an animal retires it becomes a family pet. He has a 14-year old high-energy golden retriever that he thought was ready for a rest, he explained.
“But he was so depressed at home that I had to return him to the show.”
Popovich has three assistants in addition to his wife and daughter. There are eight people in the show. He showcases his juggling acts, and the cast includes clowns and acrobats. The story line is about homeless clowns and homeless pets.
Popovich was born in Russia. His parents, Alex and Tamara, were performers and dog trainers in the Moscow Circus. He learned to juggle when he was 6 years old, and by 17 was famous for his juggling act on a freestanding ladder, which he does in the current show.
In 1990 he was invited to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming a featured act. Nineteen years ago he started his own circus theater with one cat. Now his Comedy Pet Theater has 14 cats and 12 dogs. With regular shows in Las Vegas, he sets aside a certain amount of time for touring the country.
“One of the main messages of my show is to bring attention to animal shelters and the many homeless pets and rescue efforts out there.”
Popovich said he asks audiences, “Who is more talented, the people or the pets? And pets always win.”
IF YOU GO
Popovich Comedy Pet Theater
2 and 7 p.m. Saturday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$16 to $32
756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org