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Nearly 50 cats were rescued from a hot car. Now there’s a Target model | Lifestyle

The scene was heartbreaking: Nearly fifty cats were crammed into a hot car at a rest stop near the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

The cats were piled from floor to ceiling in an SUV, and police soon discovered that their owner had been living in the car with them.

The owner agreed to surrender the cats to area animal shelters, but during the rescue one of the cats escaped. Hercules, a gray-and-white feline, fled the scene that sweltering day in June 2022, said Nicole Perreault, a veterinarian who runs Tuff Start Rescue, a nonprofit foster and adoption organization in Minnesota.

Animal control volunteers searched for the cat for a month, she said, until Hercules was finally spotted on someone’s doorstep in the neighborhood. His jaw was broken, he was covered in maggots and his tongue was severely damaged, Perreault said.

The person who found Hercules outside took the cat to the veterinary clinic.

Perreault said she suspected the cat was Hercules and contacted its previous owner, who confirmed it.

“This gentleman said he had fallen on hard times and had been evicted, so he stayed in his car with all his cats,” she said. ‘He was very polite and it seemed like he loved them very much. He was happy to know that Hercules had been found and that he was getting a lot of love.”

She didn’t know what happened to the man who was deported. She assured him that Hercules would be taken care of, she said.

“We suspected he might have been hit by a car,” Perreault said of Hercules. “He was so close to death that I wondered if it would be more humane to euthanize him.”

But then Hercules lifted his head and looked directly at Perreault.

“I got the impression he really wanted to fight,” she said.

Perreault and her team fed and cleaned Hercules, then gave him fluids through an IV and gave him pain medication. When the six-year-old cat was strong enough, Perreault took him to an animal oral surgeon to have his jaw repaired.

Perreault said she posted a few photos of Hercules on her Facebook page to let people know the cat had been found and was gradually healing.

“He ripped my heart out when I saw him,” she wrote. “…I decided that we owed it to him to give him every opportunity to recover from this terrible ordeal so that he can hopefully experience the love and loving attention that awaits him.”

Jill LeBrun, a St. Paul pediatric nurse who has fostered dogs and cats for Perreault’s rescue over the years, was immediately interested.

“As a nurse, I am drawn to medically fragile animals,” said LeBrun, 50. “I knew Hercules needed to be cared for and I felt I could do it.”

When Perreault and her staff determined that Hercules was strong enough to leave veterinary care, LeBrun took the cat home. Hercules was soon enjoying a nap with her other cat, Kay.

LeBrun quickly realized that she would adopt the cat instead of fostering it.

“He’s pretty special; he also gets along great with our new puppy, Juni,” she said.

“His jaw is a little bit crooked and his tongue is hanging out almost all the time because of what happened to him,” Perreault, 44, added. “But he is a sweet, tough cat. The name Hercules suits him.”

Last fall, LeBrun said, she was scrolling through social media when she came across a post from Animal Connection, a pet talent agency that was looking for cats with unusual faces. It was looking for pet models for Minneapolis-based Target.

LeBrun said the agency loved the photo she sent of Hercules with his tongue hanging out. She was asked to bring her cat to a studio for a photo shoot so that its personality and appeal could be assessed.

“Hercules did great – he’s a friendly cat and everyone loved him,” LeBrun said, noting she was paid $100 for participating. “They told me his picture would be on something for Target in early 2024.”

In mid-March, when LeBrun still hadn’t heard anything, she took a trip to her local Target and walked through the pet aisle.

When she came to a display of store-brand cat litter, she was stunned and delighted to see the image of her cat — with its dangling pink tongue — on every bucket of Up & Up Fragrance Free Clumping Cat Litter on the shelf.

She immediately bought some.

“So did all my friends and neighbors,” LeBrun said. “One of my friends didn’t tell her son about it when she took him to the store. But he saw the nest and said, ‘Mom! That cat looks just like Hercules. ”

LeBrun said Hercules was recently brought in for a second Target photo shoot, meaning he’ll likely appear on other merchandise in a few months. The TV channel Kare 11 recently reported on the cat’s sudden fame as a model.

“He is a natural and likes to be the center of attention,” LeBrun said, noting that her cat has remained modest and is not the least bit fussy.

She said she still marvels at his journey from being locked in a sweltering car, then escaping and nearly dying, to becoming a feline model.

“I feel very lucky to be the person who gets to spend every day with him,” she said.