by Mallory Moad
Take one hundred ninety-eight legs, sixty-two ears, six wings, and countless costumes and accessories, and what do you have? It’s not a parade, a military pageant, or an anime character. It’s something much better.
These appendages and fancy dress clothes belong to the cast and crew of the Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre, where an assortment of dogs, cats, and other pets, along with their human co-stars, exhibit skills and stunts in a show that is as heartwarming as it is entertaining. And here’s the twist: Every animal in this production was adopted from a shelter. Every. Single. One.
Gregory Popovich is the man responsible for giving these creatures a second chance at life and turning them into superstars in the process. Born in Russia into a circus family, Gregory is a fourth-generation circus performer and veteran of the prestigious Moscow Circus. He came to the United States in 1990 and was the first performer from the Soviet Union to sign a contract and work for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. When he went out on his own, he followed the advice of his father to always have an act that is different, to make something that is unique. That’s where the pets came in.
Although Gregory began his solo career as a juggler and physical entertainer, he was no stranger to working with pets onstage. His mother had an act with dogs, and he says, “My first babysitters were dogs of my mom!” Having grown up surrounded by animal performers, his ability to communicate with pets comes naturally. Adding trained pets to his act, which was already receiving attention and acclaims, was the logical next step. The idea of pet shelters was new to Gregory, but when he was introduced to the concept by his US friends, he immediately found his cast of characters. When Gregory goes in search of potential performers at a shelter, “They choose me, I choose them.” He never looks for a particular breed, size, appearance, or gender but instead pays attention to their personalities and response to interaction with humans. This applies to cats as well as dogs.
If you have ever owned dogs, you know what people pleasers they can be. And if you have ever been owned by a cat, you know that’s just not how they roll. Gregory explains, “Working with cats is a completely different technique than working with dogs. It’s important to find out what they like to do and what their natural habits are” and each cat performs just one stunt in the show. But it’s not unusual for one of Gregory’s furry friends to go on strike and refuse to perform. “Yes, it happens with cats very often. They all have different moods, and they ignore me. But for each trick or routine I have two to three cats who can do the same trick, and during the show, I can tell which one to select.” That’s right, these cats have understudies. They’re all divas, they all have their limits, and the audience loves them to pieces.
Gregory always refers to his performing companions as pets, not animals. “I work with house pets, dogs and cats,” he explains. “They are my family, and I believe domestic pets need our care and love. I am grateful to live and work with my best friends.” His training techniques are based on intuition, positive reinforcement, and respect for each pet and its natural abilities. They aren’t forced to do things they wouldn’t, or can’t normally do, or which would make them uncomfortable. Nor are they punished, caged, abused, or sedated. Sometimes Gregory will adopt a pet, usually a cat, that just doesn’t take to the stage, but he has never returned a pet to a shelter. “They are still part of our family.” When they are adopted, they get a forever home, even the ones with stage fright.
Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre is based in Las Vegas and alternates a residency at Planet Hollywood’s V Theatre with touring. The pets travel in style in a custom made trailer with air conditioning, heat, and water. Each pet has its own separate area, an added safety feature. Well cared for, they have a regular veterinarian who looks over them from the moment they are adopted. “Each pet has a health certificate, record of the shots, and even travel passports,” Gregory says. “They have more paperwork than me!” When they’re home on their days off, these famous pets are just like yours and mine. The dogs enjoy running, jumping, and swimming, and the cats, in Gregory’s words, “like to lounge and sleep.” Of course they do. Everyone has the option of going outside to play or sleep in the sun.
The cast of Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre isn’t limited to cats and dogs. There are mice, a parrot (who can bark and meow, something he learned from his neighbors), and geese. All of them have names, “Even the mice!” Wait a minute – geese? Gregory tells the story: “I was at the animal shelter and saw a goose there. When I asked the shelter worker how they found a goose, she said a lady moved and brought the goose to the shelter. I decided to try and bring geese on stage and it works great!” There are humans in the show as well and include jugglers, physical comedians, acrobats, and hand balancers. Because the family-friendly show is mostly physical and contains almost no spoken words, it is appropriate for everyone regardless of age, lan-guage, or ability. “It is an international show and doesn’t need translation.”
Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre will return to Fresno’s Tower Theatre for the fourth time on Wednesday, November 30. Gregory will be bringing twelve cats, twenty dogs, three geese, and the newest star of the show, a mini pig named Lucy that will be fun and exciting but hopefully will deliver a message, too. More than an animal loving world-class showman, Gregory Popovich is a vocal advocate for shelter adoption. “Our main message is animals are people, too,” he says. “If, after my show, someone from the audience visits a local animal shelter and adopts a pet, I feel like my message reached out.”
My name is Mallory Moad, and I believe adopted pets are the best kind.
For tickets, contact the Tower Theatre at (559) 485-9050. For more information on Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre, visit comedypet.com, and you can find videos of Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre and interviews with Gregory Popovich on YouTube.