Here is a confession I never thought I’d be making on Italy Explained: I am one of those people who has an Instagram account for her cats.
I adore cats. But when I started thinking about this month’s Italy Roundtable theme of PETS, my first thought was the not-so-pleasant fact that many Italians abandon their pets when the family goes away on a vacation. (I think it happens far less now than it used to, but that it happens at all is incredibly sad.) Talking about this (heck, thinking about this) stresses me out, though, so I really didn’t want to dwell on it.
Instead, then, I’ll tell you about an exceptionally cool organization in Rome that not only encourages the adoption of rescue animals, but does so from its headquarters in a famous ancient Roman monument.
If they cared enough to pay attention to history, they would never let us forget the fact that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats. I mean, worshipped them. Now, you might think that the modern housecat’s haughty demeanor is all the proof you need that cats still think they’re worshipped – and you might be onto something. You might also point to the fact that a whole bunch of stray cats in Rome have chosen one of the city’s important ancient sites as their abode.
Largo di Torre Argentina is in Rome’s city center about halfway between Piazza Venezia and Campo de’ Fiori. The square surrounds an excavation of ancient Roman ruins, where the ground level is about 20 feet below the modern street. The whole thing has the look of a zoo exhibit with railings along the sidewalk so visitors can stop and look into the ruins from above.
The site includes the remains of four Roman temples, with some partial columns and walls visible, as well as the Theatre of Pompey. If you’ve heard of this 1st-century BCE theater before, it’s probably in relation to Julius Caesar – it was just outside the Theatre of Pompey that Caesar was assassinated by several Roman senators.
Yes, when you visit the Roman Forum you’ll see a spot where flowers are (still!) left for Caesar, but that’s on the place where his body was cremated. The place where he was killed is over in Largo di Torre Argentina.
With a bunch of cats.
Since 1993, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary is a no-kill shelter that has been feeding, spaying/neutering, and caring for the stray cats that had taken up residence in the ruins.
For several years, the work that the cat sanctuary was doing was underground – in a couple of ways, including literally. Volunteers worked out of a cold, damp area beneath the street, and they did so without any official permissions from the city.
In the beginning Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary cared for about 90 cats. The resident cats have changed over the years, of course, and today the number is around 150. The shelter remains unofficial – the facilities are much improved, though still not connected to Rome’s sewage system and still below the street in a cramped space with very low ceilings (I’m only 5’2″ and I had to take care that I didn’t crack my head as I walked around).
In 2012, there was an effort to evict the shelter, but there was enough public support for the cat sanctuary that the furor eventually died down. Still, Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary has no official protections against such a thing happening in the future.
I’m a cat lover, so obviously I love that Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary exists. I love that they take care of cats that don’t have homes, making sure they’re fed and healthy. And I also love that it’s a more organized version of the long-standing Italian tradition of “gattare,” or “cat ladies.”
Picture what you think an Italian gattara is, and you’re probably not far off. Typically, the neighborhood gattara is an older woman who puts out food every day (or just about) in the same place(s) for the area’s homeless cats. It sounds informal, yes? In some cities, there are volunteer training programs to get new gattare up and running in their neighborhoods, and networks of gattare who make sure the whole town is covered.
Like I said, it’s tradition.
Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary fits into that tradition nicely, with the added benefits of making sure cats get any necessary healthcare, spayed or neutered, and – here’s the especially cool part – adopted.
That’s right, you can adopt a cat from a shelter in a Roman ruin.
There are lots of cats available for adoption at any given time, and – for those of us who don’t live in Rome – the shelter has what’s called “Distant Adoption” to help support their work from afar. There’s also information on the site about sending general donations, and you can buy something from the Cat Shop, too. A whiteboard on the wall lists new additions and adoptions for the month, and I was happy to see the latter column had more names than the former.
Each potential adopter is pre-screened and then walked through the process – including help selecting the right cat – by a volunteer to makes sure the match between human and cat is a good one. When I last visited the shelter, the small side rooms were crowded with people there to meet and adopt a cat – I loved seeing so many people there! Additionally, the main room had several tables covered in things to buy – mugs, cat beds, cat toys, calendars, bags, etc. – that all benefit the shelter.
And yes, the cats themselves were lounging on the tables, too, performing important quality assurance checks on the cat beds.
To be perfectly honest, even with the historic importance of the archaeological excavations at the site, I would never have lingered at Largo di Torre Argentina – much less visited multiple times – were it not for the cats. I am so happy to see Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary’s work continue, and to hear about the ongoing success of the adoption program. I hope you’ll consider supporting them – and visiting the cats (and the ruins, of course) yourself the next time you’re in Rome.
What pets are my cohorts writing about this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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