The “Cat Ladies” of Rome Have One Heck of a Sanctuary

Rome is known for many things—for its history, its conquests, and its pizza. But cats don’t often come to mind when one thinks about the Coliseum, at least not unless you’ve already traveled to Rome or come from there. Cats have a something of a special bond with this ancient city. It explains why there are literally hundreds of thousands of feral felines that roam around freely in ancient ruins and columned halls. Throughout the city’s history, cats have played an important role in maintaining rodent-less households. The fact that they’re adorable has probably helped as well.

The city council of Rome is likely to be made up of cat lovers too because they’ve given cat somewhat of an official entitlement to stray without endangering their lives—though nine lives may be what they’re working with. Rome has classified cats as wild (versus domesticated) creatures—all of them. The state is then not required to neuter them, the shortest explanation for their exorbitant numbers within the city center. In addition, cats are actually an official part of the city’s bio-heritage. It seems that if a four-legged feline creature wanted to live its longest life, it should somehow find its way into Rome. More particularly, it should find itself in ancient ruins, where cluster upon cluster of cats seem to find comfort and home.

One particular ancient Roman site that cats seem to gravitate towards is the Torre Argentina. You might remember this location from high school history, as its more commonly referred to as the place where his friends tragically stabbed Julius Caesar to death during the ides of March, 44 BC. It’s not a pretty picture, for sure, but history has its way of healing and redemption. No one from 2000 years ago would’ve imagined the Torre Argentina as a sanctuary for cats, but that’s exactly what the ancient ruin has become.

Started in 1993 by one cat lover, Silvia Viviani, the Cat Sanctuary of Torre Argentina is one impressive operation. You’d have to love cats to do what Viviani has done, and the 80-year old Italian will not shy away from telling you so. It’s been estimated that there are over 300,000 cats that roam the streets of Rome. That’s nowhere near a small number, and anyone thinking of even keeping that under control must either be crazy or extremely passionate about cats. Thankfully it’s the latter in this scenario, but admittedly the task is no less daunting.

The sanctuary started out in an excavated area underneath the street. Viviani was there in the beginning, providing stray cats with shelter for the night and a place to find food. These days, the cats and the entire operation have gone from underground into the historical site, taking ownership of every ancient corner and every towering column. Over the years, the operation has gone from a serious hobby into a full-fledged professional organization. The Cat Sanctuary of Torre Argentina derives funding from sponsors and fundraising events. They also get some money from curious tourists looking to know more about this weird yet incredible operation. These days, the sanctuary does more than just provide shelter and food for these cats. The sanctuary has become a center for spaying and for providing medical assistance to the animals as well. So in some way, the sanctuary is actually doing what it can to control the city’s cat population before Rome becomes feral itself.

As amazing as these feral cats are—their lives and their numbers—perhaps there’s something even curious and amazing happening here. In Italy, there’s a word, most often derogatory in use, which stands for a female person who feeds stray cats. It’s a nice way of saying what we would normally just call a “cat lady,” which also oftentimes is derogatory in terms. The cat lady is the odd one out, the loner, and the one who doesn’t quite fit. She’s the lady that keeps cats for company because she doesn’t have anyone else. It’s a sad term that’s looking to find redemption in this story as well.

Le gattare. This is Italy’s cat lady, but these days, the gattare is celebrated rather than put down. She’s the lady that has a mission she’s ready to tackle on, and that mission is taking care of hundreds of thousands of cats. The cat ladies of Rome are a group that’s dedicated to the mission of the Cat Sanctuary of Torre Argentina. This is a group of volunteers, primarily female though not all, that carves time out of their personal lives to guarantee the health and survival of these feral cats. You’d have to assume that they’re all absolute cat lovers, but loving cats is not enough to partake of such a post. The gattare come from all walks of life—rich, poor, young, old, students, housewives, business owners, and more. They consider the sanctuary their family, and the cats are part of that too. From feeding to cleaning, vaccinating and simply nurturing, the job of the cat ladies is one that all of them enjoy. There’s no room for abandonment here. But like everything else in the world, as proven by the ancient ruins that scatter throughout the city, nothing good lasts forever.

The Cat Sanctuary of Torre Argentina is in an uncomfortable position today. The good being done can be seen, but there are other matters pressing in the modern world—and that includes the development of infrastructure. There’s a chance that the sanctuary might be lost to the organization, a massive blow that would hurt the community in some way. However, the cat ladies are optimistic about their plight. They believe that their cats have nine lives. They believe that history will somehow redeem itself yet again. The city might take the sanctuary away from the cats. But like they always do, the cats will find a way to survive, and the gattare will be there to help them out somehow, someplace.



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