The tiny orange and white kitten was in rough shape when he strayed into the Belmont Fire House malnourished and too small to even be vaccinated.
After lapping up some fried chicken and lots of attention, the weeks-old kitty grew stronger.
And two short years later, Flame, as the guys in the firehouse call him, is an Instagram sensation who was featured in a recent segment of the popular Animal Planet show “My Cat From Hell.”
“I came in one day and I saw the guys playing with this kitten,” Fire Chief Anthony Segars said of Flame’s arrival at the firehouse.
“Now we’ve had dogs and cats wander up here before but they’re always gone in a day or so,” he told The Greenville News. “But a few days later … the cat was sleeping in the bay. So I asked the guys, ‘Why is the cat here?’
“And they told me, ‘He lives here now.’ ”
Since his arrival, Flame has come to be not only a companion for the firefighters, who can spend many hours away from home, but a kind of therapy cat for them as well.
“We see a lot of bad stuff,” Segars said. “And it’s like he knows, he can sense, that maybe they aren’t having a good day. And he will just rub up on them and sit in their lap, and be like, I’m here for you.”
And that’s what brought the show’s star, cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, to Greenville.
“My Cat From Hell” features Galaxy helping people cope with their feline behavioral dilemmas.
Galaxy solves their issues, though it typically involves training the people more than the cats.
And included in every show is a segment called “My Cat From Heaven” which highlights special felines and their people, like Tara, the hero cat who chased off the dog that was attacking her family’s little boy.
Flame is the latest “Cat From Heaven.”
“Everybody knows that the simple act of touching an animal brings down your heart rate and blood pressure. It seems nobody needs the benefit of this contact more than a building full of firefighters,” Galaxy told The News about why Flame was chosen for the show.
“For most firefighters, their station is their home away from home,” he added. “Their shifts are often 48 hours and they are without their family and loved ones. Every firefighter in the station agrees, coming back … after fighting a fire and spending time with Flame – simply holding him or playing ball – they instantly feel better.”
In the show, which airs on Saturdays, Galaxy watches Flame take a leisurely stroll around the firehouse contentedly nuzzling his firefighters and is awestruck by his calm in an environment that can be a cacophony of sirens and buzzers and radio calls.
“All the loud noise we make … it doesn’t faze him,” Segars said. “He owns the domain.”
‘Loves them all’
“I have never dealt with a firehouse cat before, so congratulations, you’re the first,” Galaxy tells the chief.
“And you know, one of the things that makes Flame, for me, a cat from heaven is seeing a bunch of guys gathered around a cat and having them melt – and a bunch of tough guys at that,” he said. “We don’t have enough cat guys out there flying that flag and saying. ‘Come on, cats are for men too.’ ”
Thanks to his Instagram fans, Flame, who boasts more than 12,000 followers, has a little cat firehouse complete with a fire station slide pole scratching post.
“From the time he got his first few thousand followers on Instagram, we’d get cat items – break-away collars, bow ties – people who are truly cat lovers would send gift cards for us to buy him food. So someone built that fire house for him,” Segars said.
“At Christmastime, he gets more gifts and cards than the firefighters do. We seldom go a week and something is not in the mail for him,” he added. “This fraternal order of cat lovers out there are very generous and awesome people.”
Flame’s fans include people from all over the South who stop by to get their picture taken with him while they’re traveling through, Segars said.
Belmont is a combination volunteer and career fire department with about 60 people, so someone’s always at the firehouse with Flame, he said. And everyone chips in to care for him. Which may account for why he has no favorites.
“He loves them all,” Segars said.
A form of therapy
Flame sleeps on, in and under the fire trucks, he said. When the fire alarm sounds, he simply moves out of the way as the firefighters scramble. And he’s always sitting at the door waiting for them when they return.
On the day of filming, Segars said, Galaxy was anxious to hear the firefighters’ stories and shared some of his own as well. Like the story of Tony, the cat who saved his owner from a fire 11 years after she’d saved him from death row. He also shared some behavioral tips with the guys.
“He was just kind of laid-back and real pleasant to be around,” Segars said. “We had a great day of them shooting here.”
It was a different kind of adventure than the guys at the firehouse are accustomed to.
After battling a recent blaze that involved some critically burned victims, the firefighters returned with heavy hearts. As always, Flame came to the rescue.
“When we have those bad times, my guys can sit in the rocking chairs out front and hold him and talk to him and it’s a form of therapy, I truly believe that,” Segars said. “It’s amazing how he interacts with the guys like that. It’s like he knows, ‘They need me today.’ ”