A cat shelter in Rome that draws tourists from all over the world faces eviction, despite the tremendous service it provides to care for the many animals who live in the streets of the eternal city. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the shelter is located underground and cares for about 150-180 cats at a time in a former storage space equipped with only the basics: cages, garbage bins, medical cabinets. Over the past twenty years, the shelter has helped to spay and neuter nearly 29,000 cats, thanks to donations from over 10,000 donors around the globe, says the New York Times.
The shelter is nestled among archaeological sites and herein lies the dispute about its future. Though the shelter has occupied the space for years, Italian state archaeologists have now decreed it must go as it is near the Area Sacra of Largo Argentina. This site contains four temples dating back to the Roman Republic (509 – 27 BCE) — that is, before the time of Julius Caesar (who was, in fact, stabbed to death not far away).
Specifically, the cat shelter sits smack above the site of the travertine podium of the 2nd century BCE Temple D. As Fedora Filippi, a Culture Ministry archaeologist, tells the New York Times, “The cat ladies are occupying one of the most important sites in Largo Argentina, and that is incompatible with the preservation of the monument.” Having a cat shelter so close to ancient sites has created the additional issue of tourists throwing food for the cats onto an adjacent archaeological site. In addition, health officials have said the shelter is an “inappropriate environment” for the volunteers, tourists and cats.
“This isn’t about the cats,” says Filippi (who notes that she herself lives with a cat), emphasizing that she is simply seeking “to protect Italy’s archaeological patrimony and to apply the law.”
But tell that to Rome’s gattare, or cat caretakers. Silvia Viviani, one of the founders of the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary association who is also a retired opera singer, tell the New York Times that “If they want war, we’ll give them war. The cats need us.” No one less than the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, declared last week on Twitter that both he and his cat, Certosino, “are on the side of the cats of Rome. Anyone who touches them will be in trouble.”
The shelter has never been officially authorized but municipal officials have tacitly acknowledged the services its volunteers provide (that Rome’s veterinary department would be hard-pressed to carry out) and have even allowed the shelter to expand and modernize. The city of Rome is therefore doing something of an about-face in telling the shelter that, unless it moves its operations, it will soon to be evicted.
Talks between the shelter’s representatives and those for the archaeologists have gone on for two years but proved fruitless. Moving the cats is not an option; as the shelter says, its highly visible location is essential, as tourists from around the world see the cats and make donations.
It’s hard to object to preserving Italy’s archaeological heritage and certainly a site so ancient. The dispute over the cat shelter is really about bigger issues regarding the country’s cultural heritage. Certainly there are few places in Rome that do not harbor, or potentially harbor, traces of the city’s rich historical past. The cats are themselves part of the city and, indeed, “of the city’s bio-cultural patrimony,” as local legislator Monica Cirinn puts it.
One of the remarkable things about being in Rome is constantly seeing how the past and present exist side by side, from motorscooters zipping beneath the majestic ruin of the Colosseum to, yes, cats darting into the structure’s nooks and crannies. I know from taking groups of college students to Greece that the presence of life amid the ruins perks their interest: So did the splash of a frog in a pool of water in the remains of someone’s fancy house in Dion in northern Greece excite one group of students to explore.
The cats of Rome have lived for years — centuries! — among those ancient ruins. Why undo their co-existence now?
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Photo by Andrea Schaffer