Children find calm and companionship at Pittsboro cat refuge
Half a dozen kids knelt on the floor around a cage in the kitten house at Siglinda Scarpa’s Goathouse Refuge, peering at the litter of four-week-old kittens and mama cat inside.
“What would you name them?” asked Mary Ruth Coleman, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. “These kitties don’t have names yet.”
Blake Levow-Guerra, 8, pointed to one. “I would name that black one Brownie,” he said. “And that one with the patch, I would call him Patchy.”
Gwen Hackett, 12, eyed a little tabby. “See the orange one?” she said. “I would call him Orange. Boy, the black one is really chatty.”
“Chatterbox,” Blake dubbed it.
Gwen wanted to see every kitten, so Goathouse volunteer Carol Smiley led a few of the children into a second room to show them another litter. Gwen watched the kittens play, rolling and tumbling and mewing, for a long moment. “I wish we could stay here forever,” she said.
The 14 children, accompanied by several parents and teachers, who visited the Goathouse Refuge last week are students at the Jordan Lake School of the Arts, a small school in Apex that focuses on arts, nature and active learning. Many, though not all, of the students have autism or other developmental challenges.
Visiting the 16-acre Goathouse Refuge, where most of the 200 cats free-range in their spacious and beautiful wooded enclosure and outbuildings, offers such children unparalleled opportunities, said Beth Kuklinski, who founded the Jordan Lake School in 2009.
“Oh my gosh, the kids could not wait come back,” Kuklinski said. “It’s such a beautiful learning space, and Siglinda is such a wonderful role model. The world doesn’t slow down for these kids, and so we have to make our own spaces where they feel comfortable. “This is certainly one of those. It’s such a special experience for the kids. They love it, and you can just see them take it all in.”
When the students went to Goathouse on April 30, they visited the chickens and geese, and explored the pond, where they were especially intrigued by the tadpoles. Then they entered the cat enclosure, where each child wound up pairing up with one of the cats in a bonding process that happens naturally, Coleman said.
“Both our own observation and a wealth of research shows that animals can make a huge difference for children, especially children with special needs,” she said.
When the children returned the next day, they carried sketchpads. They fanned out and had little trouble finding their special friends among the cats around them.
Learning to speak
The diminutive and charismatic Scarpa, who was born in Italy, knows firsthand what a difference an animal can make in a young person’s life.
An internationally known ceramic artist as well as an animal welfare activist, she founded the cat refuge on the grounds around her home, off N.C. 87 north of Pittsboro in the late 1990s.
When Scarpa was a girl, she had what would now be diagnosed as autism, she said. She was withdrawn and unable to communicate.
“Then one day during the middle of the winter my father brought home a little kitten he had found,” she said Tuesday. “I was in bed, and he lifted my blanket and put that little kitten on my chest, right on my heart.
“That kitten became the first creature I ever let into my world. I called him Little Heart and he was the first creature I communicated with. And little by little I started to communicate with people, too.”
Inside the small entrance building, Blake sat on the floor with the purring gray tiger stripe who lay on a cushion in front of him. He leaned forward and gently rested his head against her. They both looked at peace.
Is that your special friend? a visitor asked. Blake nuzzled the cat’s fur. “One of them,” he said.
Source: Charlotte Observer