Animal Intelligence and Heroism

Animals act on Emotion as well as Instinct

While this occurred more than a decade ago, some scientists are still trying to decide if animals are intelligent or if they act purely on instinct.  A cat’s instinct to avoid fire and save herself would be far stronger than her instinct to save her kittens, but Scarlett proved that animals act on emotion as well as instinct.  If they know fear, pain, loss, grief, a sense of family, love and so many other emotions that we experience, then how can we treat them as if they do not?

Scarlett the cat

Scarlett the catScarlett the cat is a former stray cat whose efforts to save her kittens from a fire, at serious harm to herself, attracted worldwide media attention and has been related in a number of nonfiction books. She has also become one of the animals featured by the shelter which treated her and her kittens, the North Shore Animal League, in their fund-raising and public relations efforts.

On March 30, 1996, Scarlett was in an abandoned garage allegedly used as a crack house in Brooklyn, New York, with her five kittens when a fire started for undetermined reasons. The fire department responded to a call about the fire and quickly extinguished it. When the fire was under control, one of the firefighters on the scene, David Giannelli, noticed Scarlett carrying her kittens away from the garage one by one. Scarlett herself had been severely burned in the process of pulling her kittens from the fire. Her eyes were blistered shut, her ears radically burned, her paws burned and her coat seriously singed. The hair on her face was almost completely burned away. After saving the kittens, she was seen to touch each of her kittens with her nose to ensure they were all there and alive, as the blisters on her eyes kept her from being able to see them, and then collapsed unconscious.

Scarlett the catGianelli took the intact family to the veterinary clinic of the North Shore Animal League, in Port Washington, New York, where Scarlett and her kittens were treated. The weakest of the kittens, a white one, died of a virus a month after the fire. However, after three months of treatment and recovery, during which time one of the staff of the League stated Scarlett was “spoiled rotten” and treated like a queen, Scarlett and her surviving kittens were well enough to be adopted.

The story of this feline mother’s heroic efforts to save her kittens attracted worldwide media attention, and the League received 7,000 letters offering to adopt Scarlett and her kittens. They ultimately chose to divide the kittens into two pairs, and the two pairs of kittens were given for adoption to residents of Long Island. Scarlett herself was adopted out to Karen Wellen. In her letter, Ms. Wellen indicated that, as a result of losing her cat shortly after being injured in a traffic accident herself, she had become more compassionate and would take in only animals with special needs.

Scarlett's kittensThe North Shore Animal League has created an award named the Scarlett Award for Animal Heroism in her honor. This award is presented to animals that have engaged in heroic acts to benefit others, whether humans or animals.

Watch a short movie clip of Scarlett after her brave ordeal here.

Further reading

Driscoll, Laura (1997). The Bravest Cat!: The True Story of Scarlett, illus. DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan, New York: Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 0-448-41720-0.

Martin, Jane, and J. C. Suarès (1997). Scarlett Saves Her Family: The Heart-warming True Story of a Homeless Mother Cat Who Rescued Her Kittens From a Raging Fire. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84288-2.

Weinstein, Emily Eve (2002). Cat Book. Huntington, W.V.: Beau Soleil. ISBN 0-9666085-8-5.

New parents and what is left of the building from which Scarlett saved her family:

Davd Giannelli




  • Show Comments (4)

  • Karen Scarlett Wellen

    As Scarlett's human companion, I can attest to the fact that she was incredibly intelligent, had a sense of humor and knew how to communicate her needs, wants and love to my family <3.

  • Edson Cabrera

    an incredible cat with selfless intuitions

  • Claire North

    I just read a little about Scarlett and what a beautiful cat. I am a cat person myself and have saved mother cats and their kittens from euthanasia at animal control before…thank you to all who adopted the kittens and thank you to Scarletts lovely adopter..Karen. Together we all make the world a little bit kinder 🙂

  • Ondřej Marek

    No wonder if Scarlett is reborn to the human world for the next life…

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