Their lives began precariously, and now the three hurricane
kittens dangle nightly on a taut rope, the newest performers in Dominique
LeFort's Flying Cats show at the Hilton dock. The three Kittens were part of
a litter born under LeFort's girlfriend's porch a week after Hurricane
Georges pummeled the Lower Keys. Now, the 3 month-old-kittens -- Georges,
Chopin and Mandarine -- have joined his act. Their tightrope scene is really
just natural kitten play. "It's not really the training, but the getting
used to crowds," LeFort said of getting the three ready to perform. He found
that out with the first cat he trained 20 years ago when he and his family
lived in Montreal. Chaton bolted before his first performance when he saw
all the students sitting in the school auditorium.
LeFort performs his cat-through-fire-hoop for a crowd gathered at the Hilton
dock.LeFort didn't start out as a cat trainer, but as a clown in the
European tradition. He grew up in Brittany, France, but left for North
America in 1967.
|LeFort with his
daugher Vanessa, whom he sent to UCLA with money made at his cat
An animal lover, LeFort incorporated his 5-year-old
daughter Vanessa's pet into his act 20 years ago. Vanessa wanted the
black-and-white kitten, but she loved to pull Chaton's tail."So the cat came
to me for protection," said LeFort, who quickly realized Chaton would be a
great addition to his clown act.But after two years of performing together,
Chaton was lost.
Six years later, Vanessa saw another cat in a pet shop.
Again she asked her dad for a cat.LeFort said no -- until he looked into
Marlene's eyes."She became my star," he said.She was still his star when he
moved to Key West in 1984, and the show became a full-blown cat act.
One of LeFort's stars keeps the crowd's attention while on hind legs.The
cats have paid Vanessa back. With the money the shows brought in, LeFort
sent his daughter to UCLA where she earned degrees in mathematics and
physics. By the time she went to Cornell University for a master's in
physics, her grades paid for her tuition, but the cats still paid the
extras.She received her master's at age 24. "All the money I made [at
Mallory Square] went for her," LeFort said.
He lives in a motor home in
the Lower Keys. Vanessa spent her teen years living with her mother in Los
Angeles, but she often visits here. "Without her, I wouldn't have any cats,"
LeFort didn't abandon the clown style when he switched
to cat performances.He incorporates exaggerated motions into the show to
make the children laugh, and satire to make adults laugh. Though with his
accent and the subtlety of the jokes, only a small part of the audience
catches the humor.
The new kittens join Oscar, Cossette and Piggy and
Sharky, who have performed all of their 14 years, and 4-year-old Sara.
LeFort with three new additions to his act born during Hurricane Georges.
The kittens- Chopin, Mondarina and Georges- are now in training. Each night
LeFort gets his budding performers acquainted with the crowds by letting
them dangle on a rope during his popular act at the Hilton dock.LeFort has
toured North America with his cats. He has worked for Disney and performed
at New York's Madison Square Garden and a large music-crafts festival in
PBS did a special on him 10 years ago, which airs twice a
year. And he has been on Animal Planet.But it's his Key West show that is
closest to LeFort's heart. "Here is better than a circus," he said. "Here
you need to do more. You need to put an act together."