Gregory Popovich on pet retirement and how to train a cat

Gregory Popovich and his rescue animals perform during the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater show Saturday, June 15, 2013 at V Theater.
Photo: Sam Morris

There’s a scene in Shakespeare in Love where a playwright suggests to a mentally blocked Shakespeare, “You see—comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want.” Gregory Popovich caught onto this idea while performing as a juggler at Circus Circus in the mid-’90s, and in 2006, he launched the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater at the Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood). Using household pets, Popovich, 49, has carved out a niche as one of the city’s top family acts, and he took a break to talk to the Weekly about what it’s like trying to get a cat to listen and the delicate process that is pet retirement.

A video during your show indicates you get all of your animals at local shelters. Is that true? Except the parrot, that is true. I use pets only from animal shelters.

Why did you decide to do that? I’m a fourth-generation performer from a circus family in Russia, and my mom trained the dogs and parrots. I myself am a pet lover, and I came to the U.S. as a juggler at Circus Circus in 1990. When I started thinking about how I could update my show, I started thinking about dogs. My American friend took me on a visit to the animal shelter, and I was surprised how many nice-looking puppies were waiting for their new master. From this point, I decided in my show, only pets from the shelters participate. I try to promote homeless pets, and I try to send a message for those nice-looking animals.

Popovich Comedy Pet Theater

How many animals do you have? I have 12 cats and 10 dogs. And one parrot, two geese and one duck, and white mice. This is a big company.

Where do your animals stay? We have two houses. I built a second house for my assistant, and the big backyard has two houses, one for the dogs and one for the cats, so they have a place to stay quiet and comfortable. It’s a farm-style place. It’s a place they can exercise and run.

Which animals are the hardest to train? I would say kitty-cats, but it’s not that they’re hard to train. They’re very smart, and they learn very quick. The most difficult part is asking them to do it every day in the show because the cats are very sensitive animals.

How long does it take you to train a cat? It takes one month in the living room to explain to them, “I need you to jump through a hoop,” or, “I need you to jump to my shoulder,” or, “I need you to walk around my leg.” But then the most difficult part is to move from the living room to the stage. I ask my family to put lights in the living room, a recording machine and add sound, lights, extra light, so the applause of the people does not bother them. This process takes three to six months because I don’t want to stress the kitty.

Does it take about the same amount of time for the dogs? No, the dogs are more brave. And they follow your commands more. It takes two to three months to train them.

Have you ever had an animal you couldn’t train? Yes, I’ve had a couple cats that were nice kitties, but they couldn’t complete it. They just sit down on the chairs on the stage. We put them in the chorus line. They have their own mind. I don’t want to say they’re stupid.

How many pets live with you? I have two kittens and two dogs who have already retired. I also have a couple of cats who are ready to retire.

How does retirement work? I have to keep bringing them with me. It’s a slow process. You just can’t leave them at home one day. You have to bring them to the casino, but not bring them on the stage. So the cat or dog understands, “I’m not alone. I’m with the company. And I’m not onstage, but no one forgot me at home.” It’s a couple of weeks process before the cat or dog retires and understands they’re not onstage anymore.

Sounds like that can be a little rough. It’s uncomfortable for them. Even retired, they don’t want to stay home. They cry when we are loading all the animals to the trailer. Even if they don’t work onstage, they still want to be part of the company.

And then they live with you? Of course! They stay with me in my home. I never turn them back to the shelter.

You have done quite a few fundraising events for animal groups. What is your relationship like with the animal organizations in Las Vegas? Here in Vegas, I have a very tight relationship with [The Animal Foundation]. I have a lot of pets from there. But with animal rights groups, I don’t have this opportunity to do any shows for them. But it’s a real important point: My show works only with house pets, not wild animals who live in nature, like tigers. If I didn’t take those pets from the shelter, they would be killed. That’s why I wanted to call my show A Second Chance. I work with local animal shelters, and I tell them I’m available for any participation. If anyone asks me to do anything else for animals, I’m always open.

Popovich Comedy Pet Theater Monday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m., $35-$50 (purchase tickets here). V Theater, Planet Hollywood, 260-7200.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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