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Cat Fight In Rome: Beloved Shelter Faces Closure

Anyone who has visited Rome and its antique monuments has also seen their four-legged residents: the many stray cats that bask in the sun amid the ruins.

One site in central Rome is known as "cat forum," thanks to its adjacent cat shelter. But Italian archaeology officials have issued the Torre Argentina Cat Shelter Association an eviction notice, and feline lovers from around the world are bracing for a cat fight.

The Roman ruins at Torre Argentina are an oasis in the middle of the city's chaotic traffic. The site is dotted with the broken columns of four ancient temples. It was here, at a theater designed as a meeting place for politicians, that Julius Caesar is said to have been stabbed by Brutus.

But tourists and passers-by seem more fascinated by the site's contemporary residents. "People are interested more in cats than in monuments," says Lia Dequel, one of the shelter's founders. "The two together are fantastic ... because monuments come alive if you see a cat lying on it, or jumping from one pillar to another."

Now, two decades after the shelter was created, national archaeological officials say it's illegal and must go — although the cats themselves can stay.

Dequel is dismayed. "If I leave these cats here, who sterilizes them? They wouldn't go to doctor and say, 'Hi, doctor, sterilize me,' or 'vaccinate me,' or [to] be fed."

If I leave these cats here, who sterilizes them? They wouldn't go to doctor and say, 'Hi, doctor, sterilize me,' or 'vaccinate me.'

A Cat Shelter With A Star-Studded Past

In 1994, Dequel and her friend, retired opera singer Silvia Viviani, took over what had for decades been an improvised cat shelter. It began in the 1950s, when a Shakespearean actor from a nearby theater somehow got the key to the old warehouse where archaeologists kept their tools. The actor, Antonio Crast, loved cats and used the space to store cat food.

In fact, Crast loved cats so much he wanted to die among them. Lo and behold, it is said that he had a heart attack right here, inside the ruins among his beloved felines.

The warehouse key was passed on from one person to another, mostly cat lovers connected with the theater. "There is a link between cats and actors," says former soprano Viviani. She notes that the great film star Anna Magnani, who lived nearby in Palazzo Altieri, was one of the most famous cat ladies who brought pots of pasta to feed the Torre Argentina cats. "And cats have always been the inspirational muse of artists," Viviani adds. "Just think of Baudelaire and Hemingway."

The shelter's premises are located in an underground storage area excavated under the street in the foundations of a temple. But today, the Torre Argentina Cat Shelter Association is no longer a primitive, damp cave. Over the years, Dequel and Viviani convinced city authorities to provide the shelter with electricity and running water — although they still don't have a sewage system.

The Torre Argentina Cat Shelter Association neuters and vaccinates stray cats across the city. Administrators are concerned about the cats' fate if the shelter is closed.
Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
The Torre Argentina Cat Shelter Association neuters and vaccinates stray cats across the city. Administrators are concerned about the cats' fate if the shelter is closed.

Part Of Rome's 'Biocultural Heritage'

Volunteers care for some 200 cats at this site, and also help vaccinate and neuter cats from other feline colonies in the city — 27,000 over the past decade. Their efforts have helped to control the city's cat population, and the group also finds homes for an average 125 cats a year.

When we enter, we see a couple of clean, well-lit rooms lined with cages for sick cats. A large feline is sleeping in a basket on top of a table.

"That's Gottardo," says American volunteer Andy de Paoli. "He's a bit of a bully with other cats." De Paoli says Rome is known for its gattare — the cat ladies who feed the cats — but that they were not always so popular, especially during the Middle Ages. "Cats were associated with the devil and witchcraft," he says. "So often, when a witch was burned, a cat was burned along with them. It wasn't very safe for a woman to be seen feeding a cat."

But in more recent times, a decree of Rome's city council went so far as to recognize cats as part of the city's "biocultural heritage." After all, many say that cats lived here before the Romans.

Rome's superintendent for culture, Umberto Broccoli, is trying to mediate between the shelter and national archaeological officials. He says that decree ensures the felines cannot be evicted. "As an institution, the cats of Rome are older than the marble columns and pediments," Broccoli says. "Therefore, the feline colony will not be moved."

Italy is rich in archaeological treasures, but places like Pompeii, Nero's Golden House and the Colosseum are cracking and crumbling due to a lack of funds and neglect, as well as corruption.

Italy is also a country where illegal construction is pervasive. It's odd, therefore, that authorities are focusing their efforts on a cat shelter that's become a tourist attraction and survives thanks to donations from all over the world.

But the cat ladies are fighting back. They've posted a petition to the Culture Ministry on their website, and have already have gathered 6,500 signatures.

And even this dog lover can't help but side with the caretakers of the cats of Rome.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.