February 10, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Once, some years ago, I went with a good friend to see that Russian cat circus. It was my friend’s birthday, and seeing said cat circus was a long and dearly held dream of hers. If memory serves, the cat circus took place at a college of criminal justice, but why would that be true?
This cat circus has periodically been accused of animal cruelty—just sort of on the grounds of existing—but the proprietors purport to be very affronted by these charges. They’ve said in interviews that they consider the cats talented performers and respect them as such. All I can say for sure is that the cats’ act was sort of underwhelming. With the full understanding that herding cats is proverbially difficult—and so getting them to, like, go down ramps is presumably that much harder—it didn’t seem like it would have required any abuse. In any case, the cats were petted and given treats every time they jumped onto a box or something. For someone who’s been dubious about Sean Penn’s journalistic rigor, I’ll admit this is a very lazy stance to take, but these are at any rate my impressions of the cat circus. I remember I bought a particularly terrifying lapel pin that pictured the wild-eyed trainer/ringmaster and a bored-looking feline, and kept it affixed to my purse for some months. But I was young then.
I have more qualms about “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats,” a circus act that was captured in an early film. Considering that the performers routinely walked through fire (and that in the nineteenth century, kittens were routinely drowned) I’m guessing these feline pugilists were nonunion. Professor Welton wears the Mephistophelean, wild-eyed look I associate with cat circus proprietors. As should be obvious, this film arose from the chamber of horrors otherwise known as the Edison Labs.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.