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Scarlett: A Mother with the Heart of a Lion

By: Eamon Lynch

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George Washington once said, "All I am I owe to my mother." Those of us who can say that are lucky, and as we commemorate our own mothers this year we also celebrate all mothers – especially those who have risen above average and made a place in our hearts by their selflessness and courage.

When we think of courageous mothers, who can forget Scarlett? She was the New York stray cat who touched the hearts of people throughout the world by using five of her nine lives to save her kittens, one by one, from a burning garage in Brooklyn, NY, and badly scorching herself in the process.

The firefighter who rescued Scarlett that day on March 30, 1996, a 17-year veteran named David Giannelli, had saved a dog from a similar fire 10 years earlier and brought it to the North Shore Animal League America shelter in Port Jefferson, Long Island. They treated the dog and named it Blaze. "Dave never forgot what we did, so he turned to us," says Marge Stein of North Shore, where Scarlett underwent three months of life-saving medical treatment. "He got the cats together in a box and asked if could he bring them in."

When Giannelli placed Scarlett in the box with her kittens, she counted them with her nose, even though her eyes were swollen shut and her paws burned. She was named Scarlett because of the red patches that could be seen through her singed fur. The kittens were unable to open their smoke-damaged eyes and one later died. Scarlett sustained severe scorching on her face, ears and legs. She had to have the tips of her ears amputated and her eyelids were burned off.

It's been five years since the fire and five years since Scarlett was named the most famous cat in America. "There are two Scarletts that everyone can remember," says Stein. "It was a very remarkable experience. I've been here a very long time and had my share of stories that caught the media's attention, but nothing ever came close to the story of this amazing cat."

So, how is Scarlett now? "Fat," laughs Karen Wellen, the New York City writer who was chosen to adopt Scarlett four months after the fire. "She's great. She has scars and she doesn't have a lot of fur on her face. She has streaks up and down her paws where she was burned in the fire. And she has to have her lidless eyes lubricated three times a day. But she's really in great shape."

Calls About Scarlett Deluged Shelter

When the story of a cat with the heart of a lion became public, well-wishers deluged the shelter. "For months our phones rang so much they would have burned your hand," Stein says. "We got calls and letters from around the world, South Africa, France, England. They all wanted to know how she was doing, and many wanted to adopt her or the kittens."

More than 7,000 letters were sent to the shelter and more than 1,200 people wanted to adopt the cats. The shelter asked people to write a letter explaining why they wanted to adopt Scarlett. The Board of Directors made their choice after reading a letter from Wellen. In her letter, Wellen wrote of a terrible car wreck she survived in 1989 and how during her recuperation she lost Moffit, her family cat of more than 21 years.

"The physical and emotional pain I have endured through these years has made me a more compassionate person," she wrote. "And I vowed that if I ever allow another cat to enter my life it would be one with special needs."

Wellen wanted Scarlett as soon as she opened the newspaper and read the story of her heroic rescue. "I was in love with that face. I just found the fact that she had the courage to go through what she did so amazing," she says.

Scarlett's New Life

Since her adoption, Scarlett has lived mostly at Wellen's parents' house in Brooklyn, with frequent visits to Wellen's Manhattan apartment. The four surviving kittens were adopted in pairs, and Scarlett saw them only once, about a year after the fire.

"Scarlett wasn't interested in the kittens at that point," Stein says. "She held them when she needed to and then she let go. That's also something folks have to learn. When to hold and when to let go. She saved their lives then maybe thought, 'Let them make their own lives'."

Not that she is missing her brood. "Scarlett is very much a happy cat and receives love and attention from Karen and her parents," Stein says. "She comes back here [to North Shore] to have her eyes examined. She was here recently to have her teeth cleaned."

The amazing story of Scarlett has spawned a family of sorts: Wellen remains in regular contact with the families who adopted Scarlett's kittens and with the firefighter who saved them. But despite a pregnancy scare not long after the fire, there will be no more kittens: Scarlett was spayed several years ago.

According to Stein, it was important that Scarlett went to a home that had no other animals. "After her recuperation Scarlett had developed the attitude of a diva," she laughs. "She realized she had become a celebrity. She would not do well with another animal in the house. She was a star."

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