The Roman Cat Sanctuary – From What I Don’t Know About Animals

This is the section on the Roman cat sanctuary in the square of Torre Argentina. It is at present under threat:


However, prior to the pathological or the uncanny, there’s a milder state of animal obsession that moves or amuses us. It’s a very fine balancing point, but with reassurance (railings, say, or official approval) the distress at too many living creatures, at seething cats, swarming felines, can be suppressed. On my first visit to Rome a few years ago, I stayed in a hotel near the square of sunken excavation at Torre Argentina. I wandered across the road from my hotel to look down into the ruins; taking an easy minimal tourist moment. It is one of the oldest temples in Rome, built around 400-300 BC, the place where Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and it’s a perfect, neatly contained image of Roman ruins: you look down from the pavement at fragments of walls, stone columns of varying heights, upright and toppled, pathways interrupted by broken, scattered slabs of stone, worn steps leading to an altar. Most ruins are empty places, filled only by passing, wandering tourists, coming and going along defined routes, but Torre Argentina, though walled off from the city above it, is an inhabited ruin. All the paths, columns and slabs and creeping foliage are furniture, walkways, resting places in shade or sun, dining facilities, and meeting areas for the hundreds of stray cats who live down there in their subterranean, antique feline city. After the excavation was completed in 1929, some feral and stray cats moved in to hang out in this safe, out of the way place, and soon the gattari (the Italian for Cat Ladies) arrived to take care of them — one of them the almost mythic actress Anna Magnani, who was working at the Teatro nearby.

I spent a contented hour or more every day while I was in Rome leaning on the railings, looking down at Cat Central. Safe and untroubled, they lead what appears to be purposeful, self-regulated lives among the ancient ruins. They loll in the sun, rest in the shade, sniff and scratch around in the greenery growing up and around the ancient stones; others idly stroll the paths or run swiftly along the tops of walls, leaping over gaps left by history to the next broken segment. They perch on fractured columns, watching those walking below them and sometimes pounce. They meet up sniffing each other briefly and pass by unconcerned, or arch their backs and challenge each other with deadly stares or unearthly yowls. There are groups which are perfectly comfortable together in their own particular area, others are individuals exploring and testing alien territory, who belong in different parts of the ruins, with their own comrades, while some of the cats look as if they only ever walk alone, as cats are supposed to do. But all of them choose to be there, as Bunty chooses to live in my house, and as Darcy eventually chose (or his cat-Alzheimer’s chose) not to. It is their home. And it looks, from their untroubled existence down there that they know it. As all cats do, they own it by being there. 

It is safer down in the ruins than up on the streets dodging forests of legs, cars and motor scooters, but they are also there because of the saucers that are dotted around the landscape. There has been a continuous stream of gattari since 1929. Some are Italian, but there have also been ex-patriot English and German women who have taken it on themselves to care for the cats. They have used their own money to feed them and set up Torre Argentina as a sanctuary. People now bring their unwanted cats, or cats they have found ailing, troubled or troubling in the streets, to the small office the gattari have made down the stairs under the pavement. Several thousand cats a year pass through, and they are inspected, nursed, fed and, if possible, sent on to a foster home. Two women, Silvia and Lia, have been in charge since 1994, having taken over from a solitary woman who was feeding and caring for the cats without any kind of assistance. ‘This woman’s generous efforts put her on the verge of economical and emotional collapse,’ writes Silvia on the Torre Argentina web site. Now, teams of volunteers help to keep the cats fed, clean and overseen. Vets offer their services as charity. Almost all of the cats living in the sanctuary have feline leukaemia, but they are given treatment and taken into the office, which doubles as a hospital, to be cared for when they need it. There are around 250 cats permanently at Torre Argentina, as well as the cats people bring along, all of which are spayed and neutered before they are released into the ruins. The ones that don’t find foster homes stay in Torre Argentina and some are ‘adopted at a distance’ as a means of providing income for the sanctuary. Nevertheless, Silvia and Lia are still squatters in their underground office, which remains unconnected to the city sewers. They display devotion and offer Rome a service (though one that is apparently unappreciated by the city council), and no one suggests that they suffer from the pathology of cat hoarding. The differences are structural – the cats they care for are outside rather than in their own homes; they have created an organisation that helps to fund and find volunteers and medics, who offer their services to deal humanely with the animals and their needs. There is no denial. It doesn’t seem to threaten to get out of hand, and, of course, for the onlooker, it is a sunken separated site with substantial containing walls and railings. This alleviates any anxiety of excess. Idiotic, of course, because the cats easily slip through the railings when they want, and the gattari and even the public can open the gate and descend into the ruins. But it remains a contained spectacle. There is no need to do more than stand, as many do, and as I did, looking down at the lives of animals, spectating, almost believing they are creatures in the wild, cats as we rarely see them, leading their own uninterrupted lives, as it seems, and to feel grateful to the women who are prepared to take responsibility for them. Nothing too frightening there. and much to be grateful for.