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.
"The feline psyche is very interesting. They live in the present, and they like to be comfortable." More importantly, perhaps, "They understand velocité," he says, pronouncing the word in French and spinning his arm in circles to demonstrate. "The fastest one gets the prey."
Dominique is the same way. "Me, I like fast," he says. "When I was in Paris, I don't like to walk. You know in the subway? I like to run. I like that," he says, smiling, relishing the thought, "velocité."
"They can read your mind very well," he adds. This, he explains, is not ESP but evolutionary. "If they go after the prey, they have to read the mind of the prey."
Cats are not without empathy, however. "Well, they help you," Dominique says softly. "When you feel weak or tired, they come to you to comfort you. It's interesting, really. When they realize you are down or stressed, it's amazing: They pick it up and comfort you.
"They are more for individuality. They are unique. They do not follow anyone. If people like dogs, they like to follow a leader. But a cat doesn't need to follow to feel strong. Some people are like this." He continues a quasipolitical ramble that seems to follow a single thesis: "On the planet, if people were more independent, we'd have less problems."
In other words, things would be better if people were more like cats.
On his Website, www.catmankeywest.com, Dominique refers to his show as "Dominique's Circus Cats." The name is ironic. Part of the singular appeal of the performance is that it is far from the greatest show on earth.
With a Saturday wedding in full swing yards away, Dominique's show seems, by contrast, to take a tone of irreverence. The pinging of steel drums mingles with a recording of Pachelbel's Canon. Wedding attendees wander by, unwittingly crossing the border between holy matrimony and something else entirely.
One of the most entertaining things for a veteran Catman audience member is to turn away from the show and watch others seeing it for the first time. It is a Rorschach test. Some people are baffled, others amused. Dominique's cats are in control, and often they make a fool of him. "Do something," he pleads, "I look stupide over here!"
Dominique is always clowning around. Part of being a clown, he explains, is humbling yourself before the audience. They laugh at you, not with you, and in the process elevate themselves. This, he says, is why clowns hold a special appeal for children. Sometimes he puts red tissue paper in an embroidery hoop and has his cats jump through it, parodying his ring-of-fire trick. Even then, a lot of people look nonplussed. When several groomsmen pause to watch the show, they freeze, holding cans of Budweiser aloft as they stare in disbelief. "This guy is crazy," somebody mutters.
Maybe they are dog lovers... or drunk... or both. In any case Dominique calls it a "cat show for cat people," but of course it's more than that. The show combines several techniques he has studied in Paris and perfected for decades, including pantomime, clowning, improvisation, and drama. His performance is not simply antics but theater. It is structured, with oddball lines written in like the dialogue of an absurd play.