Roman Heroes . . . and their Cats

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The Evolution of the Oldest Feral Cat Colony in the World

Thousands of tourists visit La Torre Argentina in Rome every year, but for the most part, they don’t go to see the Roman ruin where Marcus Junius Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar in 44BC.  Mostly, they go to see the cats.

Visitors from Europe, Asia and the Mid-East peer over an opaque guardrail into a full city block of rubble 40 feet below.  Chipped marble columns and half-tumbled buildings jut from a yawning pit, and earthy clay smells commingle with exhaust and street smells.

On any given day one might see archeologists sitting in a trench, picking at the ancient walls and polishing found artifacts.  A cat lounges nearby on a 2200-year-old marble slab, and a few more saunter past, tails swishing.  For them this is not a historical site — it is home.

The start of La Torre Argentina’s excavation and the cats’ arrival happened about the same time, in 1929.  Perhaps the cats were drawn to or dumped in the semi-sheltered ditches below the street.

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While Romans have a reputation for discarding cats like inanimate objects, the city is also known for its gattare, a once-derogatory term meaning “cat ladies.”  From the early 1930s through World War II and into the ‘90s, a loose network of cat ladies tended the felines at the archeological dig under the banner of La Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.

In 1993 two self-proclaimed gattare, retired opera singer Silvia Viviani and retired cruise ship doctor Lia Dequel, began helping another woman care for the 90 Torre Argentina cats.  Dequel and Viviani quickly realized the job was overwhelming, so they enlisted the aid of the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, which, among other means of support, helped the organization receive nonprofit status.  AISPCA agreed to mentor the fledgling nonprofit, teaching the women British and US models of feral cat care, emphasizing spay/neuter.   

Daniele Petrucci, a vet tech and the sanctuary’s sole employee, was excited to learn about Spot Magazine and that it was based in Oregon.  He showed this writer his collection of live traps, which he sends home with people each day.  “Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon!  We would love to have one of those trucks,” he said, referring to FCCO’s apparently world-famous mobile spay/neuter clinic. 

Petrucci organizes two weekly spay days in Torre Argentina’s unofficial surgical room, and gives gattare and other low-income cat owners vouchers honored at seven local veterinary clinics affiliated with the sanctuary.

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The seven vets have been a godsend, according to lead volunteer Karen Cortese, who has Dutch, Italian and US citizenship, but resides in Rome.  She notes that La Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary started “very hesitantly” in 1993, and only got electricity, running water, a heating/cooling system, and a linoleum floor in the last 10 years.  Before that, Dequel, Viviani, Petrucci, and their international volunteer crew worked in a veritable cave, complete with dirt floors, cockroaches and kerosene lamps.  “We’re still squatters on a national Archeological Department site,” laments Cortese, adding that the sanctuary is not yet attached to the city sewer so has no bathroom.  “We go to the bar across the street [to use the toilet],” she laughs.

While far from high-tech, the 21st Century improvements have allowed the group to work miracles.  Volunteers run a nursery where disabled cats are provided lifelong indoor protection and medical help.  A sweet black cat with a neurological illness lurches around the room and into his private cage.  He looks up plaintively with big yellow eyes and flops down with a “humph.”  Cortese cuddles another kitty who has a rare form of diabetes.  She points out a few FIV and FIP cats, saying the group adopts young FELV cats to indoor, one-cat homes.  “We do euthanize the older, sicker ones,” she admits.

Eleven years ago the organization got a computer, on which volunteer Andy De Paoli created an open-source database — today 7,000 cats and 10,000 donors strong.  On the feline side, the database tracks cat sterilizations, medical issues, adoptions, and a unique “adopt at a distance” sponsorship program for cats who cannot be sent home or returned to a colony.  On the human side it tracks donors, adopters, volunteers, and foster homes for kittens.

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De Paoli, who immigrated to Pittsburg at age three but later returned to his birthplace, stresses the group’s commitment to early sterilization.  “We sterilize at three months but that is not a wide practice here,” he says.  In fact, many Italians — even devoted gattare — haven’t yet joined the spay-neuter bandwagon.  Those who have, to De Paoli’s frustration, only fix females.  “If you only sterilize the females, the males leave the colony, fight with males in other colonies, or get killed,” says De Paoli.  Torre Argentina estimates that 75% of the unneutered male cat population in Rome is FIV+.

At the same time, Petrucci, a man in his 30s who has worked for Torre Argentina since 1997, speaks to a rising consciousness among Romans.  The group’s veterinary partners have seen they can profit from sterilization, and they’re telling colleagues.  The gattare are slowly coming around too, and Petrucci estimates he fixes 30 cats a week.  In 2001the sanctuary altered or paid for spay/neuter vouchers for 850 cats.  In 2010, Torre Argentina fixed or had altered more than three thousand.  Most were returned to their colonies, but several stayed in the shelter and 145 lucky cats were adopted to pre-screened, indoor-only homes.

Cortese stresses that La Torre Argentina is not a shelter, though it does provide shelter services.  It is a quasi-protected feral cat colony, where the 114 current feline residents live among the ruins.  “The cats are mostly outside,” she says, “and they are not 100% safe.”  Like every other feral cat worker, she longs the day when her life’s work becomes obsolete.

Though spay/neuter and pet responsibility movements have not reached critical mass in Italy, Petrucci is optimistic.  “You used to hear PSAs on radio or TV that said ‘don’t abandon your pet.’  Now we hear, ‘don’t abandon your pet — and have it fixed,’” he says.

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As Italian animal welfare inches forward, the cats of Torre Argentina appear to be doing well, with ample food, vet care, a temperate climate, and a city block of nooks and crannies to roam.

Back at street level a big silver cat suns himself on the guardrail, effectively snubbing the little German girl who would like to pet him (but is held back by her mother).  Behind him, three columns rise from the cavern below, quite possibly the very place Caesar was murdered.  It seems right that the cat should be here, guarding the history, secrets, and conscience of a lost empire. 

All photos by Meryl Lipman