The ‘Mother Teresa’ of animals

Some people come here to adopt a cat from the Goathouse Refuge, the animal sanctuary she runs, tucked back in the woods at North Carolina, US. 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 moulded 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.

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.

Scarpa, who is barely 5 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. Sole, 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 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 potbellied wood 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 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," 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. Black-capped chickadees zoomed in and out of another. It was a tiny kitten, nearly drowned in a storm, that changed the course of Scarpa's life when she was 7.She takes as many animals as she can from 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?


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