Nearly 50 cats were rescued from a hot car. Now one is a Target model.

The scene was heartbreaking: Nearly 50 cats were crammed into a hot car at a rest stop near Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

The cats were piled from floor to ceiling inside an SUV, and police soon learned that their owner had been living inside 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, scampered off that sweltering day in June 2022, said Nicole Perreault, a veterinarian who runs Tuff Start Rescue, a Minnesota foster and adoption nonprofit.

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

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

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

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

She did not know what happened to the man who was evicted. She assured him 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 near death that I wondered if it would be more humane to euthanize him.”

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

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

Perreault and her team fed Hercules and cleaned him up, then gave him fluids through an IV and put him on pain medication. When the 6-year-old feline 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 we owed it to him to give him every chance to recover from this horrible ordeal, so that hopefully he can experience the love and TLC that awaits.”

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

“As a nurse, I’m attracted to medically fragile animals,” said LeBrun, 50. “I knew that Hercules was going to need to be fostered and I felt that I could do it.”

Once Perreault and her staff determined that Hercules was strong enough to leave veterinary care, LeBrun took the cat home. Hercules was soon snuggling up for naps with her other cat, Kay.

LeBrun quickly realized she’d be adopting the feline instead of fostering him.

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

“His jaw is a little crooked and his tongue almost always hangs out because of what happened to him,” added Perreault, 44. “But he’s a sweet, tough cat. The name Hercules suits him.”

Last fall, LeBrun said, she was scrolling on social media when she came across a post from the Animal Connection, a pet talent agency in search of cats with unusual faces. It was scouting pet models for Target, which is based in Minneapolis.

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 his personality and star appeal could be assessed.

“Hercules did great — he’s a friendly cat and everybody loved him,” LeBrun said, noting that she was paid $100 to participate. “They told me his picture would appear on something for Target in early 2024.”

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

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

She bought some right away.

“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 litter and said, ‘Mom! That cat looks just like Hercules.’”

LeBrun said Hercules was recently called in for a second Target photo shoot, which means he’ll probably be appearing on other merchandise in a few months. The TV station Kare 11 recently reported on the cat’s sudden fame as a model.

“He’s a natural and he loves to be the center of attention,” LeBrun said, noting that her cat has remained humble and is not the least bit finicky.

She said she still marvels at his journey from being hoarded 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.

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