December 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Like Siegfried & Roy’s tigers, the cats in Gregory Popovich’s Vegas act are tough to train. On the plus side, though, they won’t rip anyone’s arm off, and frankly, cleaning the litter box is less daunting. That’s because Popovich, who appears twice a day at the Circus Circus hotel-casino, prefers to work small—with house cats.

A native of Ukraine, Popovich, 35, rescued his 14 performers from animal shelters, taking them home to the house he shares with his wife, Izolda, 35, their daughter Anastasia, 8, and at last count, six dogs—and all those cats. Unlike big cats, house cats won’t respond to the crack of a whip. “Pet them, kiss them and talk to them,” he says. “Yelling will upset a cat, and a cat holds a grudge.”

Popovich and Izolda got their first cats soon after moving into their suburban home in 1992. “We were alone,” he says. “It was homesick period.” Popovich, who like his parents had toured with the Moscow Circus, began training one of them—and the cat, named Snow, made his debut in Popovich’s juggling act, jumping from chair to chair and onto Popovich’s shoulder. Audiences liked Snow so much that Popovich expanded the cat part of the act and now uses six in each performance.

Away from the bright lights of the Vegas strip, the cats revert to basic cat behavior. “Some jump around and play,” says Popovich. “Others sleep. If you let a cat live like it wants to, it will be a good friend.”

Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, is one fan who appreciates the difficulties of getting house cats to perform on cue. “It’s genius,” he says. “It’s like getting rocks to dance.”

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