The story of how Hercules the cat became a model for Target seems pulled from a Hollywood story, but it's all true. And it started in the least glamorous way.

Hercules, now 10 years old, was living in an SUV in the summer of 2022 with nearly 50 other cats when his beleaguered human owner agreed to give them all up. The man's life had come apart and he could no longer care for himself, much less his animals.

But when the Animal Humane Society was called in to help rescue the cats, Hercules slipped away. When he was finally found weeks later, emaciated and with wounds on his body festering with maggots, he was nearly too sick to be saved, said Jill LeBrun, a St. Paul pediatric nurse who eventually adopted him.

"They decided to give him a chance even though it seemed precarious," LeBrun said of the foster and adoption nonprofit Tuff Start Rescue and the St. Francis Veterinary Clinic, both in Isanti, Minn.

The veterinarian who saved Hercules, Dr. Nicole Perreault, has said in media reports that when she first saw Hercules his jaw was broken and his tongue so damaged that it hung out, giving him a curious look. She had called Hercules' original owner, who had raised him since he was a kitten, to confirm the cat's identity.

But Hercules responded well to treatment and eventually was put up for fostering by Tuff Start. LeBrun, who already had two cats, saw the posting and thought she would foster Hercules while waiting for someone else to adopt him. That changed when she got to know his "amazing personality," she said.

"He's super laid back; he just finds a way to get along with everyone," she said. When people stop by her house, Hercules goes to the door to greet them "like a dog," said LeBrun, laughing. "Everybody loves him."

One of her two cats died unexpectedly soon after Hercules came into her life, LeBrun said, which cemented her decision to adopt him. Today he runs the house along with her other cat, Kay, and a newish dog, Juni.

That might have been the end of the story of Hercules' recovery if it wasn't for a social media posting LeBrun saw last year. The Animal Connection, a pet talent agency, was looking for animals with curious faces for a photo shoot for Target.

LeBrun sent in a photo and soon she and Hercules were headed to a Minneapolis photo studio for his star turn. He handled the day well, she said: "He's good at photoshoots; he's good in the studio. Everybody loves him."

LeBrun was told that Hercules could appear on an unspecified Target product in the near future. Weeks went by and Hercules didn't appear on anything. But he and LeBrun were called back to the studio for a second round of photos in February.

In mid-March, LeBrun went to the Roseville Target to see if she could find anything with Hercules on it. She made her way to the pet product aisle, where she found Hercules emblazoned on every carton of Up & Up Fragrance Free Clumping Cat Litter. LeBrun, stunned, nearly called out to a stranger standing nearby, "That's my cat!"

It seems Hercules' star will keep rising. LeBrun said she's spoken to both KARE-11 and WCCO. The Washington Post published a story this week, and Good Morning America called on Friday afternoon.

LeBrun said it would be easy to assume that Hercules' first owner was neglectful, but she didn't think so. "Stuff happens," she said. The man couldn't meet his obligations but still cared, she said. He sent her a video of Hercules as a kitten after she adopted him.

The cat's rags-to-runway story has left LeBrun thankful for everyone who helped out, especially Perreault and the volunteers at Tuff Start.

"They're really a smaller rescue in comparison to some, and they don't take credit for the work they do. [Perreault] really takes some hard medical cases," LeBrun said. ""So many people stepped up to help him."