300 Cats, Yes. Craziness, No.


JANUARY 9. 2013

Like her name, Siglinda Scarpa seems to be from another world. And not just Italy, where she was born. But one in which you can hear the animals speak, and everyone gets along.


Ms. Scarpa, 72, lives in a wooden house painted robin’s egg blue, in the middle of an open woodland, with old oaks and pines rising over sandy soil. With its second-story porches covered with the canes of Lady Banks’ roses, Carolina jasmine and wisteria, the house could be something out of a children’s book.

Some people come here to adopt a cat from the Goathouse Refuge, the animal sanctuary she runs, tucked back in the woods. Others come to buy her pottery or ceramic art, which is displayed in the sunny showroom on the first floor of this whimsical house: abstract pieces that evoke storms brewing in the sky; clay roasting pots shaped like squashes, with frogs or artichokes on their lids; or teacups molded like the face of a cat, the lines of cheek and jaw, nose and mouth drawn by a knowing hand.

For there are real cats everywhere.

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A white one sits as still as a snowy owl on a post overlooking the woodland. Others walk among dogs napping in the sun. More perch on the railing of a porch, staring at the birds zooming in and out of feeders beyond their reach.

Once in a while the cry of a guinea hen or a turkey rends the air. Pecking for bugs around a garden full of greens, they, too, are unafraid of the sleeping dogs — although those dogs came immediately to attention when I opened the creaking gate, joyfully barking and wagging their tails.

“Umbra!” a voice shouted from above. “Musa! Solé!”

Ms. Scarpa, a tiny woman who is barely five feet and as slim as a reed, with gray hair knotted over a moon-shaped face, appeared at the top of the porch stairs.

Umbra, which means shadow in Italian, is her soulful gray Labrador-Weimaraner mix with blue eyes. Musa, her muse, looks like a little coyote. Solé, her sunny boy, is a huge White Great Pyrenees with jet-black eyes.

The dogs looked up, as if to say, “We were just having some fun.”

Upstairs, in the sunny kitchen, were more cats — sitting on tables and chairs, napping under the wood stove or beside a snoozing dog on the couch, and nestled in the big wooden bowl Ms. Scarpa carved from an oak downed by a storm.

If you are picturing a crazy lady living among mountains of newspapers, with a pack of yowling cats stinking up the place, forget it.

Even on a winter day, there is a pine-scented breeze. The wood-burning stove keeps everything so cozy that the windows and doors are open, so the cats (42 at last count) and dogs (seven) can come and go as they please.

Roger Manley, the curator of the Gregg Museum at North Carolina State University, where Ms. Scarpa’s ceramic art will be exhibited next fall, calls her “the Mother Teresa of animals” and compares her to Albert Schweitzer, “taking care of everybody, out in the woods.”

And her home, he said, is “so calm and serene — like a spa for cats.”

It is a paradise for birds, too, which fly in and out of the feeders hanging overhead from cables strung between the trees. Each one has a screen to keep birdseed from falling to the ground, where the birds would try to eat it — and be eaten by the cats instead.

“I didn’t want the cats to kill the birds, and if I just hung the feeders from the trees, they could climb the tree and catch them,” Ms. Scarpa said. She showed how she lowers and raises the feeders, using cords tied to pulleys above and a fence post or tree below.

A fat cardinal stood on one of the screens beneath a feeder 20 feet up, eating seed. Black-capped chickadees zoomed in and out of another.

IT was a tiny kitten, nearly drowned in a storm, that changed the course of Ms. Scarpa’s life when she was 7.

“I think I was a little autistic, but they didn’t have a name for it then,” she said.

Maybe it was the sound of the bombers over her family’s house in northwest Italy during World War II, or hiding from the Gestapo, which was chasing her father, Sergio. (Mr. Scarpa helped draft the constitution of the Italian Republic, was a member of the Italian Parliament and was honored with an order of merit by the president of the republic before he died in 2007.

“I always felt that people were not seeing me,” she said. “That they were talking, but never to me.”

Then one night, after she was in bed, her father brought her a tiny gray tabby.

“He lifted up the blanket and put this little frozen thing on my chest,” she said. “I held that kitty with such love. He changed my loneliness. I could understand everything he wanted and he could understand me.”

That was when she really started talking. “I had to explain to my mother what the cat was saying,” she said.

Never one for school, she apprenticed herself to a ceramics artist at 16. By the 1970s, she was teaching at her own studio in Rome. Eventually, she moved to New York, where she taught at Greenwich House Pottery in Manhattan and the Garrison Art Center in Putnam County.

“But I was sick and tired of life in the city,” she said. “And it was too cold in Garrison.”

On a visit to Central North Carolina in 1995, she fell in love with the balmy climate and the people.

“It feels more like Italy here, the weather and the vegetation,” she said. Less than a year later, she found these 16 acres in the woods, with a goat and a shed and a nondescript house she turned into an aerie. (She still owns property in Italy, which she rents out, though she hasn’t been back since moving here.)

The Goathouse Refuge takes its name from a goat that came with the property and two others who live in a pasture here now. But it is actually a no-kill shelter for cats that roam cage-free on an acre and a half of fenced woodland.

The refuge’s low-slung building used to be Ms. Scarpa’s ceramics studio, before word got out that she loved animals. Litters of kittens started showing up at her door. A rescue group sent six cats from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; another group, in New York, asked her to take 19 cats when their owner died.

So Ms. Scarpa enclosed the woods around her studio, started a nonprofit group and began fund-raising to support the growing cat population. Now she has a staff of five and about 15 regular volunteers, including vet technicians and a handful of veterinarians who work for reduced fees, tending more than 250 cats awaiting adoption.

But veterinary bills, even cut-rate, are high for animals that need surgery for tumors, gum disease and other illnesses.

Dr. Bonnie Ammerman, a veterinarian who often makes house calls here, said: “She goes above and beyond what a lot of people would do for her personal pets. Many of these cats are feral, so they are not adoptable, but Siglinda does everything she can to socialize them.”

Dr. Ammerman, who owns a number of Ms. Scarpa’s pots and artworks, was astounded by the harmony Ms. Scarpa has created between so many species — even a bunny hopping about the yard. “They all pretty much run around together happily,” she said. “Siglinda provides a feeling of safekeeping.”

Many are from county shelters that still use gas chambers filled with carbon monoxide to kill unwanted dogs and cats. The practice has been banned in more than a dozen states. But though the American Veterinary Medical Association and other groups recommend barbiturates as a more humane form of euthanasia, gassing is still widespread.

She takes as many animals as she can from such shelters, but there is a limit. And she worries about who will take her place when she can no longer care for them. But who else would have such an uncanny way with the animals?

Ms. Scarpa knows every cat’s name and story, be it a new arrival or one of the lucky ones napping on her couch.

Rosa has asthma and takes medication. Walter is recovering from mouth surgery. Tigger, who is deaf, has trust issues.

“The guy who had him fell in love with a lady who didn’t want the cat, so he threw him away,” Ms. Scarpa said.

Alex, just rescued from a kill shelter, hides beneath a blanket, with sad eyes.

“Some of them grieve for the families that abandon them,” Ms. Scarpa said. “I have to force-feed them, or they would die.”

Gibson was found cuddled next to the musician who loved him, who had died in his trailer.

“Gibson always comes up to the back porch when music is on the radio,” Ms. Scarpa said.

Dr. James Floyd, a veterinarian and former head of the department of farm animal health and resource management at North Carolina State, met Ms. Scarpa years ago, when she called his office about a sick goat.

He also helped her with a chicken that had a tumor and a leg that had to be amputated. “I’d never amputated the leg of a chicken,” he said. (They aren’t usually deemed worth the effort.) “Coccolona was its name, and that darned chicken lived another 18 months in Siglinda’s studio,” he said. “Siglinda bonded with that chicken, and I can’t swear that I don’t think that it knew who she was and responded to her.”

Ms. Scarpa said she plans to be buried under the oak tree where the animals are buried.

“This is my home,” she said. “These are my babies.”


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