Scarlett, before she was named Scarlett, was a homeless calico cat who lived in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the late winter of 1996 she had a litter of five kittens in a deserted garage. The garage was a decrepit hulk with unstable beams – a neighborhood eyesore. One early morning before daylight, about three or four weeks after Scarlett had her kittens, the garage caught fire. The fire appeared to be arson, not an accident, and flames were roaring out the front when firefighters arrived.
The firefighters could not enter the building due to the danger of collapse. Fortunately, there were no homeless people sleeping there that night. One of the firemen who responded to the call, David Giannelli, was an animal lover who had often rescued animals from burning buildings. As he fought the fire he heard some faint meows. He traced the sound to the lot next door, where he found three kittens huddled against the wall of a building. Their fur was scorched and their ears were a little singed. Giannelli heard more cries, and he found two more singed kittens. It was easy to deduct that the mother of the kittens had carried them through the fire, but there was no mother to be seen.
After putting the kittens in a box, Giannelli and a couple of bystanders looked for the mother. They finally found her lying in the vacant lot across the street, not moving and and badly burned. Her coat was singed, the skin on her head was so burned that she could not open her eyes, and her ears were burned. Giannelli put her in the box with the kittens, and their meowing revived her enough to do a head count by touching them each with her nose.
By the time the fire was out it was daylight. Giannelli was acquainted with the staff at North Shore Animal League, where he had taken injured animals before, and he called and told them what had happened. They told him to bring mom and kittens in right away. The kittens had some burns, but the main danger to them was smoke inhalation. Scarlett was in the worst shape, with significant burns on her head and body. And she was very thin, not in the best shape to fight off possible infection and lung damage. North Shore had a full-service veterinary clinic, and they were able to stabilize mom and kittens and put them in an oxygen chamber to help their lungs.
Scarlett’s kittens were each a different color – white, dark brown, pinto, grey, and Siamese. The two that Scarlett brought out last, the white and grey ones, had to have fluids. They improved, and all five kittens did well enough to be placed in foster care. Then disaster struck, as the white kitten and the brown one came down with a virus. The white kitten died, and the brown one was left with a little nerve damage. The surviving kittens showed virtually no scarring from the fire, but Scarlett clearly looked like a burn victim. She had severe scarring on her face, her eye rims were burned, and her ears were half gone.
Meanwhile, the news media had been going wild with the story of the heroic mother cat who had raced back and forth through the flames five times to carry her kittens to safety. Scarlett became internationally famous, and North Shore received more than 6000 letters from people wanting to adopt her or one of her kittens. Scarlett wanted to be an only cat, and her four surviving kittens had bonded into two pairs, so North Shore selected three lucky homes for the celebrities. In a follow-up story in 2001, all were reported as doing well.
There have been many animal heroes, but one nice thing about this story is that it involved a stray cat. Scarlett does not appear to have been feral, and instead was what we today would call a community cat. By the time Scarlett had her kittens in 1996, there was a growing number of shelters where cats like her had a chance. And her story shows that the public will help when given the opportunity. From the firefighters and bystanders who rescued Scarlett and her kittens to the thousands of people who offered to adopt, the “irresponsible public” saved the day once again.
References: Martin & Suares, “Scarlett Saves Her Family,” Simon & Schuster Editions (1997); New York Times, May 2, 1996, Mar. 4, 2001.