Ever since he was a boy living in Russia, Gregory Popovich, a fifth-generation circus performer, knew he had a natural talent for communicating with animals. He trained with his parents, circus performers at the time, and began teaching his pets how to do tricks.
Many years later, after touring the world as a circus performer, Popovich settled in the United States and in 2006, he developed a new show, “The World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater.”
Tonight, Popovich will be bringing the pet comedy show, which usually runs at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood, to UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The comedian will perform alongside more than 30 of his own pets, including ferrets, doves, 10 dogs, 15 cats and five white mice.
The pet comedy show features tricks ranging from cats jumping through hoops and walking on parallel bars to dogs chasing balls. It also showcases Popovich’s other talent: juggling. Although the show centers mostly on his pets, Popovich, who rescued almost all of his animals from animal shelters in America, said the show tells a story.
“(The show) is not only a pet show; it includes a variety of acts including people and comedy. It’s the story about my pets, and how these homeless pets make success in the circus,” Popovich said.
Because the animals were rescued from animal shelters, Popovich said at first it was hard for them to trust humans, so it took a while to build communication between human and pet.
“It was a love story. … I started using my show pets only from shelters,” Popovich said. “Pets from shelters are stressed and in shock. After a while, they calm down, so (the training) takes longer than (with) normal pets.”
Popovich currently resides with his wife, daughter and all of his more than 30 pets in a home with a built-in addition in Las Vegas. He hires about five caretakers to groom and care for the animals, who stay in a space in their backyard.
His daughter, Anastasia Popovich, who began appearing in her dad’s show at age 3, said that she treats the animals not only as performers but also as her pets.
“As far as living, they have their own routine,” Anastasia said. “They’re our pets so we have our time with them … not as much as we’d like because they’re busy with their schedule, but we try to hang out with them as much as possible.”
In 2007, both Popovich and Anastasia performed various tricks with their cats on the television show “America’s Got Talent.” Popovich said he felt nervous on stage, but his pets did everything perfectly.
According to Popovich, the greatest challenge when touring is the animals’ difficulty of adapting to a new stage at every stop. As a result, they have to spend extra time rehearsing on stage before a show.
Popovich’s agent, Shelley Bruner, who has watched the show several times, said that Popovich gave her words of wisdom for how to treat her cats.
“(He told me that) cats and humans, we’re all alike. We do certain things for treats, it’s just the treats are different. So, in terms of cats, he uses praise and treats and all positive reinforcement to train them … you can’t use negative reinforcement with cats; they’re really independent creatures,” Bruner said.
Popovich, who is celebrating the 15th anniversary of his show, said the best way to train an animal is to respect it.
“Your pet is not a toy. It’s not a piece of furniture. The owner has to be patient. The pet can tell a lot from (the owner’s) body language,” Popovich said. “My experience with working for these animals for so many years, (I’ve learned) they have personality. I should respect them. If you have a good connection and communication, it’s fun for both sides.”