Rome…a city with rich history, amazing food, vibrant culture, world class museums, and…cats?
Most cities seem to share their streets with a population of urban felines, whether they are stray, feral, or abandoned. As cute as they may be, some of these cats are injured, carry diseases, or are unsterilized, and can therefore add to the population of unwanted cats. I admit that even I, a cat lover, can be a little bit put off by mangy cats running around when I visit a city.
Rome is no exception to this problem. But Roman cats are different: they say “Ciao,” instead of “Meow.” Just kidding! (Maybe). Roman cats are a part of a one-of-a-kind experiment designed to address the problem of strays in the city.
It all started with Ceasar. Well…not exactly. But it did start at the site where Ceasar was murdered by his rival Brutus in what is now Largo di Torre Argentina in the historic center of Rome. The archaeological site was excavated in 1929, at which point Rome’s stray cats started to move in. The cats seemed to be naturally attracted to ruins sites in Rome, as they provided a nice place for napping and a respite from the bustle of the city.
For a period of 70 years or so, the cats and the ruins lived symbiotically, with gattare (cat ladies) coming to feed them every so often. The cats and cat ladies seemed to be happy, although the cat population in the city was still untamed, with lots of injured and unsterilized cats roaming the streets.
Then, in 1993, two women named Lia and Silvia discovered one lone gattara working to spay, neuter, and feed all the cats at the site. They quickly realized her heart was in the right place but the site was more work than she could handle alone. They started the efforts to turn the site into something more.
Their beginnings were humble, and they carved out a make-shift office in an underground section of the ruins and sought help from a few volunteers. Slowly but surely they built up their underground shelter, hired a few employees, increased their supply of vaccinations for cats, and grew their sterilization rates from 850 cats in 2001 to 4,852 in 2015. With additional support from organizations such as the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary came to life.
Torre Argentina is also an active adoption shelter, and anyone who visits the site is eligible to adopt a clean, vaccinated, and sterilized cat.
Despite all the efforts of everyone involved, the shelter is not free from adversity today. Technically the employees of Torre Argentina are still considered “squatters,” and the city will not hook the site up to the city’s sewage system. In 2012, the National Archaeology Department of Rome launched a vicious campaign against the shelter via the city’s newspapers to try and turn public opinion against them. However, a petition in favor of the sanctuary received over 30,000 signatures, halting the attack and ensuring their stability…at least for the near future.
In the midst of all the other problems that Rome has, maybe it seems silly to put so much effort into protecting cats. But protecting the animals we share our cities with by vaccinating, cleaning, and giving them homes is one way to make our cities more livable and healthy. Additionally, the Torre Argentina cat sanctuary also gives the ruins (in a city with no shortage of historical sites) a new purpose in the modern city.
To get a better idea of what the site looks and feels like, watch the video below. And, be sure to visit the Torre Argentina website to make a donation!