PITTSBORO, N.C. — 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.
Scarpa, 72, lives in a 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. 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.
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! Sole!"
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 was a tiny kitten, nearly drowned in a storm, which changed the course of 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.
“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.
Home of ‘safekeeping’
The Goathouse Refuge takes its name from a goat that came with the property and two others who live in a pasture now. But it is actually a no-kill shelter for cats that roam cage-free on 1½ acres of fenced woodland.
The refuge’s low-slung building used to be 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 Scarpa enclosed the woods around her studio, started a nonprofit group and began raising money 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."
Ammerman, who owns a number of Scarpa’s pots and artworks, was astounded by the harmony 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 although 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?
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."