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.”
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“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 approximately 200 cats free-range in their spacious and beautiful wooded enclosure and several 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 first went to Goathouse last week, 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. “Kids on the autism spectrum often have difficulty communicating, and for them it’s important to find one living creature they can connect with. Very often, animals can fill that need when other people can’t.”
Animals as therapy
The children returned the next day carrying sketchpads. They fanned out and had little trouble finding their special feline friends among the dozens of cats around them.
“You found Gin-Gin!” Nancy Maynard said as her daughter Jessica leaned down to welcome him. “Did you find him, or did he find you?”
Gwen spotted Tom, a handsome, solid-black fellow, lounging on the ledge of a cat structure. Even the cats seemed to remember who they’d met the day before; Mr. Fox, long-haired with a fluffy tail, made a beeline for Maya Riccio, 7. A little later, he settled down with her, posing contentedly while she drew his portrait.
“Mr. Fox has one ear that’s bent down,” Maya said. “He’s really sweet.”
At one point Coleman announced that Will Contes, 6, had something he wanted to say. All eyes turned to Will.
“There’s a cat up in the tree!” he said, pointing upward. Sure enough, a cat lay about 20 feet up, draped lazily like a leopard on a branch.
Everybody pointed and jumped and squealed with delight. Coleman asked the kids whether they could imitate the cat’s relaxed pose. Brent Wire, 13, nailed it, curling one arm underneath his head and letting his other limbs hang free.
“It’s incredibly calming,” said Brent’s mom, Mary Wire. “We learned early on that animals are very therapeutic for Brent, and he’s loving this. Who wouldn’t? It’s safe, it’s loving, it’s nurturing, and it’s out here in this beautiful quiet place with all these wonderful animals around.”
Learning to speak cat
The diminutive and charismatic Scarpa, who was born in Italy, knows first-hand what a difference an animal can make in a young person’s life. The internationally known ceramic artist as well as an animal welfare activist 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 little girl, she had what would now likely be diagnosed as some form of 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 told the gathered children 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.”
She told the kids that Little Heart taught her many things.
“He taught me how to love him. He taught me not to hold him too tight or play too rough. He taught me that when he moved his tail like this, it meant he was happy,” she said, swaying her arm gently. “And when his tail twitched very fast, it meant he was uncomfortable.”
She demonstrated the different shades of meaning in a cat’s vocalizations. A soft meow with an upward lift in pitch at the end is a way of calling someone. A low drawn-out moan conveys worry or sadness. Discomfort at being played with too roughly evokes a sort of chirp: “Meep! Meep! Meep!”
The children echoed the calls. Mary Caffo, 9, went at it with special enthusiasm and a gift for mimicry.
“Mary speaks cat!” Nancy Maynard said.
Soon the kids drifted off to do their sketches. Mary and Gwen wanted to draw the kittens, so Coleman took them back into the kitten building.
Inside the small entrance building, Blake sat on the floor, having momentarily abandoned his drawing to simply be 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.