Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune


CHICAGO TRIBUNEAugust 18, 1991

Feline Acrobats

The most fabulous thing about the flying felines of Dominique Lefort is how unfabulous they really are.

Lefort`s four animals, who perform feats of derring-do every night at Walt Disney World`s Pleasure Island, are just cats, with the no-nonsense, I`ll-do-it-because-I-want-to-but-not-because-you-want-me-to attitude of every house cat known to humanity.

One of them makes an awe-inspiring leap, stops, licks his paw, looks around, meows and resumes his licking. Another stalls to scratch his neck on a railing before he climbs a flight of stairs. A third, caught in the middle of an evening bath by the order not to groom herself onstage, pauses for a nanosecond, then proceeds to groom herself once again.

Lefort`s cats are professionals, small and trim and wiry like their owner. But Spot and Piggy and Mars and Sharkey, mongrels all, were no more born or bred for a career in show business than Lefort, a wry little Frenchman at the waning end of his 40s, was raised to be a trainer of cats.

''Cats are basically very independent, very lazy animals,'' says David McMillan, owner of Tiger`s Eye Productions in Oviedo, Fla., who has trained tigers and other big cats for circuses and theme parks for more than 25 years. ''A cat will sleep 22, 23 hours a day.''

But Lefort has them leaping from stool to stool, jumping high in the air, standing on their front legs and sitting up on their haunches in the begging position like dogs. When he performs outside (as he no longer does at Pleasure Island, where the distractions for the cats were too fierce), he has one of them, the brown tabby Mars, leaping through two flaming hoops.

Lefort, who never owned a cat until he was an adult, grew up far from the colored lights and pounding music of Pleasure Island`s XZFR (call it

''zephyr'') Rock and Roll Beach Club, where he and the cats now perform every night. Lefort is a native of Brittany, the rocky, independent region of northwestern France.

As a boy, he wanted to be a clown, but in France young people aren`t supposed to do so: To the French, a clown represents humanity, and one can don the mantle only when one has experienced life. So the young man studied drama, mime, dance, opera and acrobatics. He worked in Paris as a mime, joined a theater troupe and, eventually, made his way to Montreal, then to Florida, where he was drawn by the presence of circus people in Sarasota and by the more remote allure of Disney World.

Along the way, in Montreal, Lefort`s 4-year-old daughter was given a cat. ''She pulled his tail, and the cat came to me for protection,'' he says now. Soon enough, Lefort, then working as a clown, got the idea of

incorporating a cat into his act. The first outings were disastrous, but he persevered. And one day, Lefort and his daughter, then 10, were walking through a mall when she spied a cat in a pet shop window. The cat`s eyes met Lefort`s, and suddenly he had Marlene, who for most of her 6-year life was the undisputed star of his show.

With Marlene, Lefort`s life picked up: He became a key attraction at Key West`s Mallory Square every sunset, and he was able to swap his old Volkswagen bus-his and the cats` only home-for an oversize RV. He was even featured on

''Late Night With David Letterman'' and other TV shows in the U.S., Spain and Japan.

Several years ago, though, Marlene was killed by dogs after she found her way out of the RV one night, but the act goes on without her, with Mars, Spot and Piggy, litter mates who are now 5 years old, sharing the spotlight that was once hers alone.

Those three (along with Sharkey, a slower learner who joins the act on occasion) have been in training since they weren`t much more than 2 months old, Lefort says.

Gerryll Hall, an Orlando veterinarian who has seen Lefort and his cats perform in Key West and has talked to him at length, confirms that house cats really can be trained.

''If you have a willing, happy cat, I wouldn`t think the cat would be any more difficult to train than a dog,'' she says, contradicting the idea that it`s not a cat`s nature to do a human`s bidding.

Lefort seems weary of the criticism he has weathered from some animal-rights advocates: allegations that he mistreats his animals, that he starves them, that he forces them to do dangerous tricks. Several

investigations in Key West by Monroe County prosecutors have turned up no evidence of any mistreatment.

''They complain that I starve my cats,'' says Lefort, who feeds the animals one big meal of Science Diet every night after they perform. ''If I starve my cats, they won`t jump.

''People with cats never complain about my cats,'' he says.