Saturday 10 November 2012

Professor Fredericks' Performing Cats

We all have our hobbies, which our friends, if they are wise, suffer gladly. Professor Fredericks' hobby is animals. The horse, the pony, the goat, and the pig have all from time to time come under his influence. Just now he has a preference for the domestic cat. He possesses a large number, of all breeds and sizes, which are conveyed from his house to the place of performance each day, are exercised most mornings in his back garden. and are fed on cats'-meat and bread-and-milk. Some of them persistently prefer the latter dish. The pride of the flock is a black animal named Sloper, who originally cost his master sixpence. A fifty-pound note would not buy him to-day. This treasure is just now suffering from a severe cold, and Professor Fredericks has been obliged to put a mustard plaster on his throat. Of all animals, horses and dogs are the easiest to train. Cats are willing enough to learn, but they are unreliable. Sloper may have walked the tight-rope five nights with elegance and precision, but on the sixtn he refuses. "It's obstinacy." says Professor Fredericks ; "and when the fit is on them, the only way is to let them rest. I never use force, and never by any chance strike an animal." For training purposes, kittens are useless. They are too enterprising. Professor Fredericks prefers a middle-aged Spanish animal, whose sense of humour is not abnormally developed. Cats can be trained to care little about the audience, and they are perfectly indifferent to applause; but they do not like any alteration in the aspect of the stage. If a stranger happens to cross the boards, they will pause and look round with a serious inquisitiveness which is inimitable.
    The first item of the performance at the Oxford and the Aquarium was climbing the pole; this, of all cat tricks, is the hardest to teach, as with the first step the animal passes out of his master's jurisdiction. Whether he reaches the top of the pole or not depends entirely upon his own humour. On this occasion Arco — a tall, thin, lank Portuguese cat — was in fine form: he climbed the pole and came down head first, without so much as a mew. Walking the tight rope followed; this half a dozen animals — English and Portuguese — accomplished skilfully, with occasional encouragement from their master.
    If there is one thing of all others that Sloper most dislikes it is mice, and next it is canary birds. He treats both of them with contempt. One of the striking features of the performance was to see him walk a tight rope literally strewn with these animals. He, lifted his feet gingerly over mice and birds, and the little mishap that occurred in the second part of the journey was due entirely to his severe cold. He sneezed one of the canaries off the rope and on to the floor; but, he made up for it by returning with a mouse on his back. It will be news to most people to hear that one cat in eight has no taste for birds and mice. When the taste has been acquired, nothing save downright bullying and cruelty will correct it, and that method of training has no place in Professor Fredericks' system. Quite recently a black and white member of the company named Aquarium, by a clever piece of business, nearly succeeded in ousting Sloper from his position as leading juvenile of the show. In a moment of forgetfulness, let us hope, he bent his head and caught a rat, in his mouth. The little animal, no doubt, gave itself up for lost. A word from Professor Fredericks, however, and it was dropped at once. Mention must also be made of the boxing cats. They stood on their hind legs facing one another on two chairs, and fought three rounds in most scientific fashion. Professor Fredericks finds that Portuguese cats make the finest performers, and the Lisbon folk the best audiences. In that city cats are adored, for the reason that they act as scavengers in clearing the streets of the innumerable mice that infest them. Their lank and lean appearance is due to this pursuit, and not to severe treatment, as English audiences are apt to imagine.

    Professor Fredericks is able to train one in three cats, those of a black hue taking most readily to the work. He first teacnes them to sit up and beg; creeping through chairs follows, which leads to crawling over the backs, and so on to walking across the stage on champagne-bottles. The Professor believes that cats have no real affection at all. It takes a canary about five weeks to get used to tis natural enemy.
    There is not on record a single instance of a Radical cat. They detest change, and if taken to a new home will hide under the sofa or up the chimney till custom has soothed their fear. It is one thing for a cat to perform in a private room, but quite another to to make him go through his tricks in a public hall, as one or two cat showmen have found to their cost.
    This power over animals is a rare gift, and those who posses it are more interesting than they think. It is a sine qua non to let the beast feel that you are its master ; and that applies especially to horses. The author of  "The Silence of Dean Maitland " makes the hero lose his power over animals after a bout of evil-doing — which, of course, is nonsense. Drinking to excess will do it, as that means loss of control and of masterhood. Professor Fredericks is practically an abstainer. Here is an instance of his nerve. A few years ago he belonged to a circus company. They were performing in South America. One evening, as the lion-tamer was about to enter the cage, a nail in the wall inflicted a slight wound on his face, drawing blood. He was sufficiently brave for his work, but he also knew his business, and he knew what kind of effect the blood trickling from his face would have upon the lions; so he declined to enter the cage. The audience were clamorous, and it was decided that somebody else must put the animals through their tricks. The choice fell upon Professor Fredericks. Although he had never before had anything to do with lions, he entered the cage, and at the end of quarter of an hour made his exit. "Weren't you at all nervous?"  I asked.  "Only once — as I was opening the door to enter. Safe inside I had control over them. The danger lay in entering." And what would you have done if they had attacked you?" "Done? — nothing I could only stand still and be eaten till somebody outside had got the red-hot irons ready!" Professor Fredericks has now given up consorting with lions; it invariably gave his wife hysteric ; besides, performing cats are more remunerative.

Illustrated London News, 22 December 1888


  1. This of course reminds me of the "Cat Orchestra" of S. Bissett, the proprietor of Toby the Learned Pig in the 1780's -- there's an interesting new blogpost here about them -- and as to boxing cats, there is a lovely early Edison film of "Professsor Welton's" going at it, paw in glove.

  2. Neat! Would these cats have performed as a sort of novelty act in theaters?

    1. Yes, exactly - they loved all sorts of novelty acts.