The Quest for the Catman

The peculiar allure of Key West fixture Dominique LeFort confounds even the most dyed-in-the-fur Catfans

He rolls another prop outside. Sun glints off the metal tubes. "Where the technicalities end," he calls over his shoulder, "the art starts."

There are plenty of technicalities. Even before he arrives at the Hilton, Dominique, who has been performing in Key West since 1984, has already begun to ready himself. His schedule is built around his show, which he performs nearly every day. Showtime is at 6:30 p.m., in "one minute plus one minute minus two, and we're never on time." He takes time off for the rainy season and sometimes, he adds, "when I am lazy, like the cats." Before each performance he, uh, catnaps for an hour or so: "I have to prepare in my mind."

Likewise, Dominique requires a certain amount of time with his felines, not merely for his own good or for the cats' but also for the quality of the performance. He spends at least half an hour with them after each show, then watches TV, reads, or plays on the Internet before going to bed. Sometimes he would like to go out, maybe to a bar on Duval Street, but often his 58-year-old body protests. "I don't have the stamina."

Michael Henzt
At sunset the cats sniff the air; the Catman must work especially hard to keep their attention
Michael Henzt
At sunset the cats sniff the air; the Catman must work especially hard to keep their attention

Besides, he says, the cats come first. "They don't like to be left alone. We have to socialize, to be a team. Because if I only see them for the show, it would not be good. You'll see the interaction during the show between them and me." He smiles and nods his head. "You'll see."

Indeed Dominique says his mental state sets the tone for the show. The cats can tell if he is tired, sad, or anxious. "They rely on me a lot," he adds. "If the boats, if they shoot the cannons, the cats look at me, see how I react. If I stay still, they stay still."

They are affected by things humans cannot see. During sunset, for example, the cats sniff the air. Dominique has a theory on this: "I'm sure it has something to do with the magnetic field or something."

He lives alone, though to him it doesn't feel that way, because he shares a large RV with his cats. "It's like one big room, so everyone is together." Dominique's motor home also serves as his office and, when he travels to performances, his tour coach. "I used to travel more," he says, "but now people know I am here."

The cats must miss life on the road. They love to sit on the dashboard, on his lap, and around his neck and watch the scenery as he drives. Last month Dominique drove them all to a performance in White Plains, New York. "When I hit the ignition, they are happy."

The cats more or less have the run of the RV, with the exception of the table and countertops ("I think it's not hygienic"). When they disobey he glares at them ferociously and pounces, like a cat, to intimidate them. "It's not a sin to tease a cat," he reasons. "They are great teasers themselves."

Dominique does not seek to domesticate his pets. He feeds them different kinds and amounts of food to mimic the inconsistent diet they would have in the wild. Some of them are somewhat wild, feral feline orphans he has adopted over the years. Or rather, the cats have adopted him. "You cannot choose a cat," he likes to say. "They choose you. When you rescue a cat, he's yours forever."

He found Sara at a rest stop outside Atlanta, a fact he often uses in his act. "I like her, she liked me," he says in a sing-song voice, "and we fell in love."

Sara is a particularly sensitive cat, so about once a month or so, Dominique locks the other cats in the bathroom and spends some time alone with her "So she feels I love her." He wants to add musique to his act, he said, "because Sara is very expressive."

Still, Dominique insists, he doesn't have a favorite among his pride. "They know I love them each for different reasons."

At this he turns to wheel out the last of his gear. It's almost showtime. He moves toward the door, and finally I blurt out the question I've been holding back: I wonder aloud if his cats are family to him.

He pauses for a moment and looks serious. I begin to worry that somehow I have offended him. I know he has family: a daughter the same age as I am who lives in Los Angeles, a brilliant student named Vanessa, who lived with him until age 11 and whom he put through UCLA, where she earned a degree in math and physics with the money he made with his cats.

To my relief the moment passes as he shakes his head in vigorous affirmation. "Oh, yeah," he says emphatically, then hurries out with the last of his gear. As he walks past, I notice he is still shaking his head, eyebrows arched over his pale blue eyes as if to say, "You have no idea."

When Dominique held his first cat show more than 25 years ago, in a high school gymnasium in Montreal, the cat, Chaton, panicked and ran away. Still, he persisted. He got more cats and trained them, performed in Las Vegas and Orlando, then came to Key West. Last year he started putting down what he's learned in a book.

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