MAYS LANDING, N.J. - The lions and tigers had come and gone, leaving a whiff of wildness in the air. They had growled and leapt through a hoop of fire and mouthed their trainer's hand.
Now, Valery Tsoraev strode into the big top of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros Circus, the rhinestones on his striped jacket and jauntily tilted hat aglitter. He put down a painted suitcase and stepped back.
Out into the sawdust of center ring sprang the act that would really wow the audience, the one that would achieve the next-to-impossible. Out sprang ... five house cats.
And their first trick was amazing indeed: They didn't run away. They hopped up on little pedestals - their rightful place, after all? - and sat there looking expectant. Looking, in fact, as if they were actually willing to do whatever Tsoraev wanted.
To any cat owner, to anyone who has tried to cajole or reason with these infamously independent, even indifferent, creatures, this might have seemed amazing enough. But Tsoraev and his cats didn't stop there.
They danced. He walked across the ring, a cat winding between his legs at every step. They did gymnastics. One walked atop a two-inch-wide bar, a kitty balance beam. Another shinnied under it, hanging by all four paws. And more! One jumped a few hurdles. Another leapt through a paper-covered hoop.
The audience oooohed. They aaaaahhed. At the cuter moments, they went, awwwww and applauded. Tsoraev, a Russian who joined his first circus more than two decades ago, when he was just 16 years old, beamed.
Tsoraev's father was a construction engineer, his mother a marketing employee, but it was the circus that was in his blood. Maybe it's no wonder. Circuses are a Russian passion. Forty towns have their own circuses; many more travel, according to the Russian Cultural Center in Washington. The Moscow Circus, in operation since 1880, seats 2,000. And that's not enough. Three decades ago, the city built a second circus that seats 3,500.
Tsoraev's first act was with trained dogs. But one day - as he related through a Ukrainian security guard who translated - he came across two cats on a city street and took them in.
For whatever reason, it's a familiar tale. Yuri Kuklachev, a clown with the Bolshoi Circus, supposedly rescued a freezing cat in a Moscow park and went on to found the world's only cat theater - with 120 felines.
Gregory Popovich started his Comedy Pet Theatre (14 cats, eight dogs, three rats and two pigeons) after he got a pet cat from an animal shelter and realized it was a comedian. Now, all his cats are shelter rescuees.
Do Russians just have a feline affinity? Tsoraev laughed. "No one else is patient enough. We are a patient nation."
"There is no animal a Russian can't train," he went on, boasting that a friend once even trained a porcupine, although he didn't say what it did. The secret is in simply being open to cats. "You've got to understand them. You've got to feel them," he said. "You've got to be open-hearted."
One of the nation's foremost cat trainers agrees. "There's nothing difficult about it," said Catherine Crawmer, who has trained both large predator cats and pampered house cats. She also edits American Animal Trainer magazine and has written a how-to book, Here Kitty, Kitty.
The reason cats have such a bad reputation in the training department, Crawmer said, is all our fault. We humans have simply underestimated them. Worse, we bore them. We coop them up in homes with nothing more exciting to do than pull down the curtains or knock things off shelves. Training them "is just a matter of learning what a cat would consider a worthy thing to work for," she said. That often means food, although different cats will, of course, want different foods.
Tsoraev won't say what he uses - "it's a professional secret," he teased - but it looked white and flaky. Tsoraev travels nine months a year in a 45-foot trailer. He and his Brazilian wife, Sylvania, live in the front. Ten cats - Star, Pino, Rincon, Mimi, Magda, Fafa, Tom, Boris, Tiazinia and Ogalyok - are in back in several cages, furnished with scratching posts and sleeping shelves. And air-conditioning. When he takes them out, he lifts them to his chin, making kissing noises, and they give his jaw little head-butts.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has opposed circuses for years because the wild animals are caged and "coercively trained to perform silly stunts," loves the idea of trained house cats. Sort of. "If they substituted domestic cats for wild cats, that would be a step in the right direction," said the society's Wayne Pacelle. As long as the cats aren't "put at risk."
Tsoraev claims that's pretty much impossible. After all, cats are cats. But to be truly impressive, well ...
For the final act, Rincon, a dark Siamese breed, stood on a tasseled platform. As his rhinestone collar glinted in the lights, stagehands hoisted Rincon up, up, up to the roof of the big top. Sylvania, in a gold evening gown, struck a pose. Tsoraev held up a large cushion. Sixty feet above them, Rincon peered over the edge of the platform once, then twice.
Then he jumped.
"Aaaaaaaah!" went the crowd as he sailed downward. A few people screamed. He landed on the pillow, and Tsoraev swept it back and down, lessening the impact. The crowd applauded and Tsoraev nuzzled Rincon briefly. Then he and Sylvania walked with their cats through a gaggle of acrobats, toward the trailer.