February, 1995

Anyone who thinks cats cannot be trained has obviously never seen Dominique Lefort and his troupe of feline acrobats. Several times each day, the trainer and his cats perform for passersby in Mallory Square in Key West, Florida.

The cats sit on circus-type pedestals watching for cues that signal them to leap through hoops or stand on their hind legs and twirl around. Throughout the act, Mr. Lefort rewards his cats with effusive praise, giggles of delight, and an occasional tasty food treat. At the end of each performance, the cats leap into their travel cages. But as their trainer takes his bow, each cat slyly unlatches and opens its cage door behind the trainer's back-to the delight of the audience.

Mr. Lefort trained as a clown, mime, actor, and dancer in his native France, but he did not begin working with cats until after he came to America 17 years ago. "I was a clown with a one-man show, and I also had a cat," he explains. "He loved me, so one day I looked at him and thought 'maybe I should give you an assignment in my show.' " After 6 months of training, cat and clown arrived at a high school gymnasium for their first public performance. "The cat freaked out; I had to do the show by myself," his owner recalls. "I learned from my cat that training isn't enough in itself- you also have to make the cat comfortable in front of people."

Mr. Lefort attributes his training ability to his understanding of the nature of cats. "A cat reads your mind- your vibes- very well," he explains. "If you watch a mother cat with her kittens, you will understand. She teaches them to hunt. She teaches them to avoid distractions. I'm like the mother cat," he says. "Dogs folIow a leader, but you can't be 'macho' with a cat. There are millions of cats on the planet, and they are all individuals- they all feel unique!" he exclaims with a laugh.