PITTSBORO — It was more than seven decades ago, but Siglinda Scarpa can still remember the “big boots” and harsh voices of Gestapo soldiers who came pounding on the door of her home, looking for her father, Geo.
Scarpa was just 4 or 5 years old at the time. She lived with her family in Novara, Italy, a small town not from Milano. Geo had been the leader of an acrobatic air squad of the Italian Aviation, but when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini allied with Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, he deserted.
In the meantime, his writings in support of the Italian resistance drew the attention of the Gestapo. After members of the secret police force came looking for her father, Scarpa’s mother, Giovanna, escaped to warn her husband. Upon her return, Giovanna packed up Scarpa and her brother, Sigfrido, and fled to the mountains near Alagna.
Scarpa didn’t see her father until the end of the war in 1945, but she remembers being hungry, cold and under constant threat of air raids. She later learned that strangers her mother brought to the mountain retreat were Jews that her family hid in the basement.
Decades later, Scarpa’s work in rescuing the hurt, the abandoned and the threatened traces its roots to her own history. She’s known locally and regionally as a renowned sculptor, animal advocate and founder of the Goathouse Refuge in Chatham County, an animal sanctuary that provides cage-free care for cats regardless of age, medical issues or temperament until a permanent adoptive home can be found.
She remembers her father brought her a kitten one cold night and sharing her bed with it. The trauma of war resulted in challenges for Scarpa and her family, but that kitten brought comfort — something she has never forgotten and tries to create for every animal with which she comes into contact.
As a child, she says, she struggled in school. She described herself as a “rebel” and someone who was “constantly bored.” One day, she ran away from boarding school. So her mother took the then-13-year old Scarpa to a man who made pottery, where she became an assistant. That man was famous Italian sculptor Nino Caruso, whose work is now in museums, private collections and as public art in countries across the globe.
“And that was it, I was hooked” she said. “It was a way for me to say what I wanted to say.”
She still has her first pot she ever created.
Decades later, she would come to the United States seeking new opportunities. While working as the Studio Manager of the Greenwich House Pottery in Manhattan, her pottery and sculpturing skills blossomed. Her work expanded from traditional pottery to earthen cookware, sculpture, garden art.
Over time, she found she wanted to leave New York to buy and house and a piece of land where she could have her kiln and her animals, which at the time included 15 chickens, two cats and four geese. A friend who taught at Duke University asked her to visit North Carolina; Scarpa soon fell in love with the state. So she packed up two trucks with everything she owned and stayed in a cabin of a friend while searching for her perfect spot.
She found it in Chatham County, just north of Pittsboro — an artist community and a plot of land with “big trees” and a house that was “practically a barn.” Those 18 acres that are now known as the Goathouse Refuge.
The land houses her home, her studio, her extensive gardens and indoor and outdoor facilities for the animals she rescues. But it didn’t start out that way.
When Scarpa first arrived, she had two cats, birds and a goat that was left on the land when she purchased it. That goat was lonely, so she acquired another. She built her studio, gallery and updated the home. She built gardens and arbors using woven cedar branches.
Word spread about how much she loved animals, so people her knew her would bring her animals that needed a new home. One day, she came to meet a customer for the studio and found her cleaning cat litter. That woman returned to help Scarpa everyday, earning the name “the poop fairy.” The same woman suggested that Scarpa should turn her land into a non-profit to rescue animals. This started “a flood of cats, dogs and other animals,” Scarpa said.
For 22 years, the Goathouse “grew and grew,” taking in animals that are often viewed as un-adoptable or sick. The facility has different types of enclosures for cats of different temperaments. And it includes an onsite infirmary for ill cats cared for with the help of veterinarians from the Jordan Lake Animal Hospital. Even with animals viewed as having “no hope,” Scarpa finds a way to help them heal.
One example is Cheetah, a cat that had been injured by a dog and was apparently partially paralyzed, dragging its bottom to get from place to place. Scarpa worked with Cheetah, doing kitty physical therapy. And while Cheetah will still on occasion slide along the floor, the cat is now able to walk gingerly and even jump on a low couch.
The Goathouse Refuge adopts out about 200 cats per year, but Scarpa said they’ve already done that much since January — with the help of more than a dozen volunteers and employees and various members and supporters in the community.
But age has taken its toll on Scarpa. She spoke to visitors about the history of the Goathouse Refuge two weeks ago, just 48 hours before undergoing heart surgery. She’s on the mend in recovery now, and looks forward to returning to what she loves most.
“I really hope I can when I come back (from the hospital),” she said. “I keep having dreams about it. I want to make mosaics with found objects. And I have all these ideas in my head. And I want to build a music studio.”
She’s fighting. And her animals sense her struggles.
“They know I love them,” Scarpa said. “When they are sick, if you love the, they get better.”
Perhaps her animals are trying to do the same for her. Her dogs and cats kept close to her, comforting her as she did for them.
Before surgery, with the help of Cindy Perry, former Pittsboro mayor and attorney, Scarpa moved all of her assets — the Goathouse Refuge, her home, her pottery, everything — into a trust for the Goathouse Refuge. This means that every piece of art sold, every donation given, every act of kindness toward Scarpa, will benefit the Goathouse Refuge and her beloved animals no matter what happens to her.
Scarpa’s most recent update on her condition is encouraging. She has been released from the Intensive Care Unit and is still under the care of her physicians at the hospital.
In her absence, the team at Goathouse Refuge continue to care for the facility and the animals. Though after witnessing her interactions with the animals, both she and the animals miss each other quite deeply. Her pottery is still for sale at the gallery by appointment and animals are still up for adoption. And the facility is working hard to fundraise to support its efforts, the animals and Scarpa’s vision.
She emphasized that “it’s four seasons at the Goathouse, not just summer” encouraging others to visit and help “keep it going.”
“This little piece of earth — no walls, no borders, and no labels except love and freedom.”
Information on setting up time to visit her gallery and her animals or the different ways to contribute to support the facility can be found on the Goathouse Refuge website at www.goathouserefuge.org.
Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.
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