STORY WRITTEN BY LEANNE ITALIE
NEW YORK (AP) — These Olympians are fleet of foot, shockingly flexible and fearless on the high bar.
It helps that they’re all teeny tiny cats.
As the opening ceremony in Rio nears, about 90 furry paw-thletes over at the Hallmark Channel are ready for some action of their own in the very first Kitten Summer Games, to coincide with the start of the real Olympics on Friday.
They have a “plaza,” a highly scratchable gymnastics stadium and a track-and-field venue outfitted with enough feathers and toys on sticks to keep the action moving.
And best of all, these competitors were all shelter kittens provided by North Shore Animal League America before the event helped find them human families of their very own. The TV special, to air Friday at 8 p.m. EDT, was shot in April.
Hallmark decided to hold its own “Olympics” on the haunches of its popular Kitten Bowls, staged each year at Super Bowl time. Once again, the fairy godmother on the sidelines is Beth Stern, crazy cat lady extraordinaire and North Shore goodwill ambassador.
Olympics fixture Mary Carillo lent a hand as co-host, despite a cat allergy, along with a pet crossover, David Frei, the longtime voice of the Westminster dog show who retired after this year’s telecast.
Frei’s heart is with his two pups back home, but he does have a soft spot for the felines. So does Carillo, who also has two dogs, including a rescue named Petey.
So how does “calling” kitten sports that include hurdles and tiny gymnastics rings differ from the human variety?
“Unlike a lot of other professional athletes, they kind of take their sweet time,” Carillo smiled on set. “All of a sudden in the middle of a big event there’s a cat nap. They don’t know the rules. They don’t care. They kind of just freestyle it at an awful lot of these events.”
All over the place, these kittens were, but their cuteness made each of them winners in every event as they chased laser lights around an oval running track and cozied up to a huge camera on a crane that caught their feline feats.
Stern, the wife of shock jock Howard Stern, fills her Instagram account with the couple’s many foster kittens and special needs rescues, along with their six permanent cats.
“Those are the underdogs,” she said of homeless animals with issues. “Those are the ones that sadly wind up in shelters for way too long.”
Stern is a master networker when it comes to securing homes for cats who have none. She and Howard have taken in more than 200 foster cats over the last couple of years.
“We always have a house full of fosters,” she said on the Hallmark set. “But we are dog people, too. We both love all animals.”
Carillo said that despite her allergy, she once owned an outdoor cat in Florida and loves them just as much as dogs.
“And they’re actually terrific athletes. Their balance, their movement, the way they stalk,” she said.
Rio is her 13th straight turn as an Olympics reporter, analyst and commentator. But on this day, it was all about the cats.
Did she spot any evidence of purrrrr-formance enhancing substances?
“I tell you what, they’re not afraid to dip into the catnip? I’ve noticed that myself,” Carillo joked. “You’ve gotta keep an eye on them. They’re animals, and they’re bloodthirsty competitors.”