At feeding time on a recent Friday afternoon at the Goathouse Refuge, there are so many cats in one 600-square-foot building—on couches, in cages, on shelves, roaming at your feet—that at times the floor appears to move.
How many cats are in here?
"Too many," replies Cheryl, a volunteer, laughing.
"Who knows?" Joan, another volunteer, chimes in.
In January, The New York Times published a story about the Goathouse Refuge titled "300 Cats, Yes. Craziness, No." The article described a rural Shangri-La run by 72-year-old owner Siglinda Scarpa. It quoted a friend of Scarpa who called her "the Mother Teresa of animals."
That story was soon followed by an equally effusive Today show segment that called Scarpa "a true saint" and another positive story by local television station News14.
There is little doubt that Scarpa, an artist who makes and sells ceramics to help pay for the refuge, loves animals and has a charismatic personality. But interviews with current and former volunteers of the refuge, former board members and veterinarians who have treated Goathouse cats—plus a review of emails and medical records—paint a considerably different picture of the refuge.
That picture is one in which animals are sick and stressed from overcrowding. Current and former volunteers and medical professionals say Scarpa is covering up problems at the Goathouse, and the board of directors of the nonprofit has done little to address them.
Nearly all of the sources emphasized they believe Scarpa has lost control, and that problems documented within the last three years have escalated and continue unabated.
"It's worse now," says a current volunteer who has been there two years. "Because there are more cats."
"She doesn't do this to be evil. She has the false impression that she has special powers," says a former volunteer coordinator, who asked not to be named. "I feel sorry for Siglinda, but I feel more sorry for the cats. She's in over her head."
In an interview with INDY Week, Scarpa denied many of the allegations leveled against her and justified others, including the charge that she asks volunteers to sign a code of conduct prohibiting them from publicly criticizing the Goathouse without speaking to her first.
"They want a piece of it," Scarpa says about disgruntled volunteers, many of whom she has fired, dismissed and, in some cases, threatened with litigation. "They start making friends and try to push me out of the place."
The Goathouse Refuge is hemmed into the woods in rural Chatham County. Wood smoke streams from a chimney atop Scarpa's pale-blue home, where she serves visitors jasmine tea at a table piled with sleeping cats. More cats stroll on more than an acre of land enclosed by a tall wire fence. More cats lounge on sofas inside a main building, while still others herd around pans of dry food.
"The place was out of a fairy tale," recalls the former volunteer coordinator, who worked there for two years.
The Goathouse is a private shelter whose no-kill policy has made it popular among animal lovers as an alternative to county-run shelters, which euthanize animals deemed unadoptable and to make room for the constant influx of unwanted pets.
In 2006, when Scarpa started the refuge, she had 60–70 cats on the property. That number has ballooned to as many as 300, according to volunteers who log intake and adoption records.
Scarpa says 300 is inaccurate, but she acknowledges that sometimes there are as many as 260–270, and most recently, 200. That makes the Goathouse, along with the Watauga Humane Society, the largest of the 79 licensed private shelters in the state.
Dr. Lee Hunter, director of the state Animal Welfare Section, says inspectors are asked to count "adoptable cats"—180 at the refuge as of January 2013, according to inspection records. Yet at the Goathouse, it is nearly impossible to determine who is "adoptable," because ferals, Scarpa's personal pets and other cats mix.
The refuge reportedly adopted out 151 cats in 2012. (By contrast, in 2012 Independent Animal Rescue adopted out 426. ) Yet even at 151 adoptions, the number of cats coming in to the refuge has outpaced those finding new homes. There are more than twice as many cats at the refuge than were recommended by a local veterinarian, a then-board member and volunteers six years ago.
"She'd get more cats in and hide them from me," says Varina Heilman, who worked as a veterinary technician at the Goathouse in late 2009 and early 2010. "I told her 'No more cats,' and then the next day there would be more cats."
At one time Scarpa said she would curb the number of cats at the refuge. After bringing in 31 cats, several later diagnosed with panleukopenia, also known as distemper, from a Gaston County shelter, she wrote to Heilman and others: "I promise you that I will never take another cat without consulting with you, and this is firm in stone."
Some of the cats come to the Goathouse from people who surrender or dump their animals. But primarily, Scarpa takes cats from local animal shelters because she fears they would be euthanized.
"I'm not going to stop taking animals from those shelters," Scarpa says. "What am I supposed to do, let them die?"
The Animal Welfare Section of the N.C. Department of Agriculture is charged with annually inspecting and regulating public and private animal shelters, boarding kennels and pet stores. Facilities are evaluated on several criteria, including sanitation, accuracy and completeness of records and the condition of the animal housing.
According to state records, the Goathouse's inspection in April 2010 was disapproved because of issues with facilities and groundskeeping, but the refuge has been approved and licensed in subsequent visits.
Sources claim that Scarpa is aware that the numbers are unmanageable given the staffing and resources. In 2010, Heilman says, Scarpa instructed her and other staff and volunteers to lie about the numbers to state inspectors during an annual visit. Volunteers confirmed Heilman's account as did a former board member, who says inspectors "were not given all the facts."
While inspections are supposed to be unannounced, several volunteers and a former board member say that Scarpa knew.
"We would prepare for days," Heilman says, adding that Scarpa directed volunteers to put out extra litterboxes in order to meet the required number per cat.
Scarpa denies the allegation.
Dr. Hunter of the state Animal Welfare Section says his office doesn't notify facilities when they will be inspected. However, he acknowledges that owners have "a general idea" of when they will occur, and that "word gets around quick" because shelters and refuges often tip one another off.
An inspection, which takes 60 to 90 minutes, doesn't necessarily indicate the conditions of a facility "the other 364 days a year," Hunter concedes.
Inspectors aren't veterinarians, Hunter says. "We make sure no one's lying down, throwing up or bleeding," he explains. "Sometimes you can get a feeling something's wrong. And sometimes not."
In overcrowded conditions at shelters and refuges, illness spreads rapidly. Upper respiratory infections, diarrhea, parasites, ear mites, feline leukemia, eye and gum disease, FIV, distemper, ringworm and giardia—the latter two are transmissible to humans—have been documented at the Goathouse according to volunteers, former vet techs and a former board member. A feral cat this week was found bleeding from the nose and mouth, says a volunteer who found him.
Scarpa acknowledges that cats have been sick, adding that she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on veterinary care. Cats with symptoms go to the vet, Scarpa says, "but we can't check every cat's mouth. It can happen that a cat falls through the cracks."
Although the Today show reported that the Goathouse has a "no-cage" policy, several cats lived in cages for a long time, according to at least four volunteers. "A lot of kittens lost their ability to socialize because they languished in cages," says the former volunteer coordinator.
Scarpa says sick cats stay in cages, some for months. Matilda, in a cage since last summer, continues to suffer from severe diarrhea as recently as this week, volunteers say.
One black cat, Malibu, lived in a cage since last February, according to volunteers. Malibu had to stay in a cage because she is "extremely shy," Scarpa says. "When she's outside she hides and she doesn't eat."
After more than a year, Malibu went into foster care within the past week.
Some cats, especially those who have come from private homes, have stopped eating because they can't navigate the chaotic and stressful environment, volunteers and vet techs say.
Others retreat: Lady Gaga primarily resides on top of a small building, where volunteers have placed bowls of food and water on the roof. She comes down in bad weather, volunteers say, and occasionally at night.
Although there is an infirmary to separate sick and healthy cats, on a recent visit, cats with diarrhea were caged but in the same room as healthy cats.
"That's not ideal," Hunter acknowledges.
One local veterinarian has treated about 35 cats from owners who had recently adopted from the Goathouse. "When we got a cat [adopted from] Goathouse we knew it was going to be sick," she says.
One of those cats was an orange tabby, Cézanne, adopted by Jane Tigar. She first visited the Goathouse in 2006. "I was charmed," she says. "It was paradise."
In 2011, when Tigar adopted Cézanne, she says Scarpa assured her that he had been checked by a veterinarian and was a "100% healthy cat."
After several trips to the vet, Cézanne was diagnosed with giardia, roundworms, an inflamed left eye infected by the herpes virus and stomatitis, a highly contagious and extremely painful gum disease that prevents a cat from eating and grooming. From 2011–2012, the tabby had 30 teeth pulled; he has two left.
"It breaks my heart that he suffered that way," Tigar says.
According to several former volunteers, Scarpa treated many of the cats herself, ordering drugs from a distribution company under a local veterinarian's name: Dr. Bonnie Ammerman of Pittsboro.
It's common for rescue groups to order medication through a sponsoring veterinarian. And it is legal for Scarpa and the volunteers to treat animals under a veterinarian's supervision. "But Siglinda didn't have the knowledge to dispense the medication," Heilman says. "She never knew the dosage or how long the cats should be on it."
Thomas Mickey is the executive director of the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Board, which regulates the state's veterinarians and vet techs. He told the INDY that "open book" ordering of drugs—giving the refuge access to medication without the veterinarian being on the property—"makes me apprehensive."
Ammerman has been concerned about the number of cats at the Goathouse. In March 2010, when there were 165 cats at the refuge, Ammerman wrote in an email: "My bottom line is she has too many sick cats for me to feel comfortable managing or consulting from afar any longer. To remedy that, she can reduce her numbers, and thus hopefully the incidence of disease."
Ammerman continues to treat Goathouse cats, including two this week for oral surgery. She tells the INDY she has changed her opinion of the Goathouse—even though there are nearly 40 more cats onsite than three years ago—because there is less disease, better disinfection and a foster program—all improvements over three years ago. "Siglinda's motivation has always been to provide a haven for cats, and cats gravitate to her," says Ammerman, who tries to visit the refuge monthly. "I believe it is because she makes them feel safe."
A long drawer in a filing cabinet at the Goathouse is stuffed with manila folders, ostensibly one per cat. Accurate documentation is key to the operation of an animal refuge; without it, a lot can go wrong.
Trace Ramsey and his partner adopted three cats from the Goathouse in 2011. It took four to six weeks to receive the cats' files. Two were listed as spayed females. One turned out to be a neutered male; the other was unspayed and went into heat.
All three cats have been chronically ill since the adoption, Ramsey says, with upper respiratory problems, parasites and diarrhea.
"There is no way to know if the paperwork is remotely correct," Ramsey says. "There are obviously some disease issues going on."
And microchipping records continue to be disorganized, a current volunteer says.
Michelle Schoepper, a licensed vet tech who worked at the Goathouse in 2010, says the recordkeeping was often inaccurate. "Many of the ones I reviewed were not updated on vaccines. Sometimes there were no records at all."
Knowing the vaccination status is important for the animals and for the people who care for them. The INDY learned of two cases in which volunteers were bitten by cats. After one incident—the account was confirmed by a former board member—Scarpa reportedly told the volunteer not to go to the doctor. Under state law, all animal bites must be reported to a local health department; regardless of their vaccination status, the animals must be quarantined for at least 10 days to be monitored for rabies.
Instead, Scarpa gave the volunteer antibiotics. "She gave me three pills. I didn't know if they were for humans or animals, so I threw them away," the volunteer says.
In another case, documented in an email, a volunteer wrote that Scarpa urged her not to seek medical attention: "When I made it clear that I was going to go, she tried to persuade me to lie to the doctors and animal control so she wouldn't have to deal with them. She basically implied that they might kill the cat and it would be my fault for talking."
Scarpa denies any volunteers have been bitten by cats at the Goathouse. However, she acknowledges that one cat has bitten her "so many times I have no idea."
"I didn't report it because I didn't want to put a perfectly healthy cat in quarantine," she says. "I know they're not sick."
The Goathouse has similarities to a rescue hoarding operation, according to veterinary research.
Researchers have identified a trend in which some hoarders identify themselves as directors of sanctuaries and rescue groups, including those with legitimate nonprofit status. These findings were published in the 2005 paper "Long-Term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases," by experts from the Tufts University veterinary school and the Humane Society of the United States.
These sanctuaries are often run by a controlling individual who takes in more animals that she can manage and believes no one else can better care for them.
That echoes what Scarpa told the INDY: "I don't think we could do better than what we're doing. Tell me where there is a better place."
Dr. Kelli Ferris, an assistant clinical professor of general surgery at the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine, has investigated at least 15 major hoarding and puppy mill operations in the past five years.
Ferris has not visited the Goathouse, but, speaking generally, she says some hoarding rescue operations "bill themselves as no-kill shelters and say without them, the cats would be euthanized," adding that as soon as the population decreases, it rebounds.
Hoarding is difficult to treat and cure. Owners of hoarding operations have processing problems in which they can't see the animals suffering, Ferris says. "They get 'clutter vision.' They're oblivious and see what they want."
That has happened at the Goathouse, volunteers say. A former volunteer coordinator tells the INDY that she showed Scarpa several extremely ill kittens that had sunken eyes and diarrhea. "I said, 'This is a bad problem.' She couldn't see what I was talking about. We'd get to the point where it was bewildering. I'm sure many cats have died that could have been saved."
In rescue hoarding operations, directors often surround themselves with enablers and accuse those who try to intervene of having personal vendettas against them. "When people start to volunteer they may be very naive," Ferris says. "Then those who have a problem with it walk away or report it."
Scarpa claims she fires people "who chit-chat behind my back" and don't confront her with problems. Yet according to emails and personal accounts, many volunteers and former board members have done precisely that, only to be ousted.
Complaints have gone largely unheeded by the Goathouse board of directors, which Scarpa recruits. Their main charge is to raise money for the Goathouse.
Jane Tigar met with the board and Scarpa in September 2011 to alert them to the possibility that more cats were ill with parasites and ear mites. The board didn't address the underlying health issues, but it changed the adoption protocol as Tigar suggested: New owners are encouraged to take their cat to a vet shortly after adoption.
It's not only the turnover of volunteers and vet techs that is notable; turnover on the board has also been significant. Of the nine people on the board in 2010, only three remain; the rest are new.
Larry Vellani, who has been on the board since late 2011, acknowledges Scarpa "is very demanding and her expectations are high."
Scarpa's "controlling behavior" was the subject of emails in 2009, when a board member, who has since resigned, approached board president Allen Scazzero.
"This is a tough situation," Scazzero, also the Goathouse accountant, replied via email. "I will try to work though this with Siglinda as soon as possible."
And in 2010, a volunteer wrote an email to Scarpa, which was forwarded or copied to the board, with concerns about the management of the refuge.
"You've accepted more cats than the staff and volunteers can care for or that the facilities can support," one volunteer wrote.
"I hope and pray that the board will become more active in the day-to-day operations and will work closely with you to provide the support needed to turn things around for the benefit of the cats and the humans who love them."
Scazzero says he doesn't remember receiving the emails, that he can't attend many board meetings and doesn't regularly visit the Goathouse. He says the criticisms conflict with "independent reports I have gotten from the general public and professionals in the field that have visited it."
Board member Elissa Mobarek says criticisms are coming from volunteers who "start getting into groups and conspiring against [Scarpa]. It happens over and over again."
Jeffrey LaRiche, who has been on the board for four years, says he visits the refuge monthly. The cats seem well-cared for and well-socialized, LaRiche says, although he could not confirm if each of the 200-plus cats receives the daily minimum of 15 minutes of human interaction, as recommended by Tufts University.
"I've never seen any problems. I've had friends who have successfully adopted cats from there," he says, admitting since he has no cats—and is allergic to them—he knows little about them.
"Siglinda's dedication is extraordinary," he says. "My greatest concern is raising funds."
Fewer cats could help alleviate the financial crunch, volunteers say. "More cats equals more food, litter and medication," one current volunteer counters. "If they have funding problems, they should stop taking in more cats."
Yet Mobarek contends the number is manageable, "if we had the right team."
On that point, critics of the refuge agree: Properly run and with a limited number of cats, the Goathouse could help homeless animals.
But as it's currently run, says one former board member, that's impossible.
"When I left, I felt terrible, that I had let the animals down," she says. "But I also felt gullible that it would be a better place. It's not going to be."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of control."