Et Tu, Kitty?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999

Et Tu, Kitty?
Stalking a scratching, slinking army of feral cats through the ruins of ancient Rome

By James Hamilton-Paterson

On a recent visit to rome i had the initial impression of having arrived in the middle of an epidemic. A good deal of public vomiting seemed to be going on. On sidewalks and pavements, on patches of grass and in gutters, frequent heaps of pasta stewed in hemorrhages of tomato sauce, or brown and lumpy Bolognese. Often the pasta was fresh, but sometimes the heap had been there so long the individual tubes and ribbons had dried out to the dark yellow they once had in the packet. These crunched and rattled when stirred with an exploratory foot.

I put this down as one of those peculiar puzzles that foreign cities pose for travelers, often insolubly, until one morning near the Piazza Tadei. On the edge of the old Ghetto, in the heart of classical Rome, the piazza has a particularly fine fountain at its center that I was admiring. Straying around a corner I came upon an old lady on her knees shaking slimy clods of cold spaghetti out of a plastic bag onto a sheet of newspaper. She gave a peculiar whistle, and I glimpsed a scuttling movement beneath a line of parked cars. At once a dreadful head poked itself warily above the curb: a head from a gothic fantasy, a blunt matted weeping thing that craned with the sinister blind eagerness of a leech. The lady dusted a small sack of what looked like powdered sugar over the mess on the newspaper and climbed stiffly to her feet.

"Caro! Darling!" she called. Then, noticing me noticing her, "Move back, move back! Cats won't come out as long as you're so close, you see. Caro!" Certain it was not me she was addressing with such desperate affection, I retreated with her to a nearby pillar and watched as Darling cautiously emerged. To me, I confess, this creature bore the same relationship to a cat as a wreck on the seabed bears to a once-proud schooner. Not only had his tail been dismasted at some point in his long career, but he had also lost a hind leg. All stumps and bumps, he hopped niftily over to the newspaper and, having swept his tattered ears like radar dishes over the surrounding terrain, judged it safe to begin licking greedily at the pasta.

"This is Leo," the lady told me as the cat ate. "He is my oldest. He is an aristocrat, a survivor. Very, very proud. I have never gotten closer to him than we are now. Some things he won't eat at all, and he doesn't like the tetracycline. But after eight years he trusts me. He knows I only care about his welfare. Despite the antibiotic, the condition of his eyes is not good."

Indeed not. But my attention, in covert glances, was focused more on this strange lady. Her tattered clothes had once been of quality and elegance; her voice, her accent, and her bearing were all of an unmistakable refinement. I began to think of her fancifully as a decayed contessa, as much an aristocrat and proud survivor as the wretched Leo. She told me that she looked after several stray cats in different areas of the city but that Leo was her favorite. Every morning precisely at 11 o'clock, rain or shine, they met here. On three occasions the following week I made a point of being there too.


From the colosseum to the Forum, from the Torre Argentina to the so-called Protestant Cemetery (actually the non-Catholic cemetery), legions of Leos bask and scratch and doze in the ruins of classical Rome, draped over pillars and pedestals, preening and posing for the camera lenses of the city's migrant visiting army. Watching the tourists' faces as one walks about this most walkable of metropolises, one sees their obvious pleasure that these otherwise empty and often barbarous ruins should be adorned with live cats; among the most popular postcards are those with cats lying artlessly about famous monuments. As a Dutch lady explained it to me, the animals make these artifacts more human in some way.

These colonies, or colonie, of feral cats have been there so long that they seem as Roman as the crumbling columns themselves. Back in the seventeenth century, the story goes, before anyone was much interested in archaeology, Rome's temples and forums were unexcavated and completely overgrown. Extensive meadows stretched between the city's parishes, especially on hills like Monte Celio and Monte Oppio. The most economical way to keep them cut was to graze them, so shepherds from the Campagna brought their flocks to nibble the Roman hills. As a sideline, these peasants bred cats, which they sold to the townies to keep down the mice and rats. As time went by, populations of escaped felines sprang up in the jungled ruins. There, in forgotten chambers and underground passageways, they bred unmolested. So, at least, runs one theory.

As an explanation it's implausibly neat. In fact, the ancient Egyptians' fondness for cats ensured that the animals had become domestic fixtures throughout the Mediterranean by at least 1,000 b.c. And of all domesticated animals, the cat, with its legendary independence, is the best placed for survival in the wild. Cats may make very charming pets, but they can also live rough. They are perfect little hunters and to a great extent omnivorous. (The feral cats living in the forest around my home in Tuscany subsist on a mixed seasonal diet of birds, voles, lizards, and insects--as well as the food that I, being more like Leo's benefactor La Contessa than I have admitted, put out for them from time to time.)

And of course, since cats are polygamous and prodigious breeders, there would always have been more cats than could possibly become pets, the surplus domestic populations inevitably turning feral. After all, this is even true of human beings. Until very recently street children like the scugnizzi in Naples were as much a part of the southern European scene as they still are in cities all over the developing world.

But whereas Christianity made a virtue of charity toward the poor and the fatherless, it was indifferent to the fate of animals. Looking at the condition of a present-day feral cat like Leo, who is, after all, cared for, it seems safe to extrapolate that his historical forebears were a diseased and miserable lot. But why? Why shouldn't they have the glossy fitness of those Serengeti lions caught in David Attenborough's zoom lenses, well groomed and full of impala steaks? The answer probably has a lot to do with overcrowding--more and more cats over centuries and centuries breeding beyond the local environment's capacity to feed them. They would also have been in fierce competition for mates; and the wounds from fighting would have added injury to the diseases that spread through overcrowded communities of any kind.

By the time the first waves of middle-class tourists arrived in the old city in the late 1800s, the feral cats were a decidedly sorry lot. They'd been that way for ages, most likely; it's just that, much like fleas, they simply went unremarked until the arrival of masses of English and American travelers, with their burgeoning sensitivities about animal welfare. Visiting during World War I, British essayist and novelist Norman Douglas wrote in his travelogue Alone of glancing into Trajan's Forum "as one looks into some torrid bear-pit" one hot day in 1917: "Drenched in light and heat, this Sahara-like enclosure is altogether devoid of life save for the cats. The majority are dozing in a kind of torpor, or moribund, or dead.... Grace and ardor, sleekness of coat and buoyancy of limb are gone out of them. Tails are knotted with hunger and neglect; bones protrude through the skin.... Are they suffering? Hungry or thirsty? I believe they are past troubling about such things. It is time to die. They know it."

Douglas might have been describing any of Rome's cat colonie today. Of course, modern Romans like La Contessa would take offense at his dire conclusions. "I can tell you I think Leo looks bad," she told me as we watched the cat eat, "that he may even be hurting. But he knows I will always be here for him. If he looks battered it just shows he has really lived, that he has a heart and a spirit and a soul."


No one knows how many feral cats there are in Rome, but most estimates point to a figure somewhere between a quarter of a million and 350,000, not including the scores of domestic pets dispatched into the feral ranks when vacationing Romans abandon the city each August. By my own calculation this represents upward of 200 tons of cats needing maybe 50 tons of food each day, every ounce of which, save what the cats kill and scavenge themselves, is donated by private individuals. In a city with as many rats as Rome, one might expect the cats to do quite well on their own, but they tend to avoid hunting the nutritious rodents, given their large size and nasty bite and the ready availability of leftover fettucine. In any case, the City of Rome does absolutely nothing for the practical welfare of its most famous fauna, which is why thousands of cat-ladies plod faithfully about town lugging bags bulging with cans of food, can openers, bottles of water, and medications. Every apartment block in Rome has at least one cat-lady, and it is estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people regularly put food out for stray cats like Leo.

That universal type, the eccentric cat-lady, is a direct descendant of a certain breed of doughty, middle-aged Englishwoman who took the novel idea of animal welfare to heart all over the hotter parts of the world during the vast expansion of the British Empire. Since then, of course, the cat-lady has become a global figure of no particular nationality. In Rome they are former opera singers, actresses, street vendors--whole battalions of gattare, as they are patronizingly known. (There are also canare, or dog-ladies, but stray dogs are a more limited and manageable problem.) Many must be "fair weather" gattare, but thousands are wholly dedicated to their affectionate task. Day in and day out, from one end of the year to the other, they care for their charges with religious devotion.

On a more official level, the 22 major cat colonie, ranging from the very large and visible one at the Colosseum to more obscure groups in damp, untouristed catacombs (such an apropos word given the circumstances), are represented by a private group called ARCA, the Roman Association for the Care of Animals and the Environment. For its part, the city passed a few laws in the 1980s for the cats' protection, classifying their territories as "habitats" from which they cannot legally be evicted: places "where they habitually find shelter, food and protection," a definition that includes apartment block stairways as much as it does the city's open spaces. There is a proviso, however. Feral cats must be neutered and fed in accordance with the laws of public hygiene. Giving food off a plate is allowable, provided the plate is removed afterward, though a bowl of water may be left permanently, as being "of benefit also to birds."

One way or another, this is a prime example of humane, liberal lawmaking having disastrous consequences when unaccompanied by infrastructure and funding. For the price of some new carpets and walnut desks in the Department of Arts and Culture, Rome might decide that as a tourism asset its feral cats should be cared for out of public funds. But the city has effectively washed its hands of the matter, unintentionally polarizing the whole cat issue even as it threw it back into the laps of the gattare. There is now a sizable minority of Romans who view the feral cats as dangerous, disease-spreading vermin. To wit: When the newspaper Il Messaggero published an article early in 1995 on feline AIDS, or FIV, an estimated 10,000 domestic cats were preemptorily cast out on the streets. Many Romans feel that even feeding the cats ought to be actively discouraged, just as feeding pigeons is.

The cats are often described in letters to newspapers as being free to multiply because they have no natural predators. This is nearly true, the exception being that some people now drive around town at night leaving bait poisoned with strychnine. Some hard-liners argue privately that with so many do-gooders intervening to keep the cats going, the effect is actually to condemn the animals to hover on the thin edge of subsistence, healthy enough to multiply but too numerous ever to thrive. The logic here seems to be that poisoning the cats is, in the long run, a form of euthanasia in the animals' own best interests. "People really just want them to disappear," La Contessa told me one day. "It's the same for all orphans, whether human or otherwise."


I Could see that La Contessa's relationship with Leo was mutually beneficial, but Leo was only one individual, a loner of no fixed abode whose very appearance showed he had done battle with traffic and lived on the wild side. Those living in colonie centered around particular ruins presumably enjoyed certain advantages, among them food from tourists, a haven from traffic, and in the case of such major colonie as the Colosseum's, organized animal-welfare groups that tend to them.

Lean over a rail at the Area Sacra dell'Argentina, an open space a few minutes' walk from the Piazza Tadei, and you look down at 2,300 years ago. These remarkable ruins were excavated in 1929, and they spread before the viewer about 20 feet below street level, a panorama of four temples from the third century b.c., as well as the remains of Pompey's Curia, where Julius Caesar was so memorably done to death by a gang of republicans. But in place of the hushed quiet of history is a large quorum of defiantly 1990s cats, snoozing among the ruins or making brainless attempts to catch flies settling on patches of sunlight.

For many years, these celebrity felines were tended by Rome's most famous gattara, the late film diva Anna Magnani. Today the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, the biggest and best-known of the groups tending to colonie, continues her work. From the far side of the Area Sacra forum, you descend a flight of iron steps to a sort of grotto extending beneath Via Florida. Here is the low-ceilinged sanctuary, a veritable cave lined with cages. Cats are everywhere: inside the cages, asleep on top of them, squatting on the floor, mincing, slinking, licking themselves, lounging in every available space. Among them come and go half a dozen overalled volunteers, mainly teenage girls busy measuring food, cleaning cages, filling syringes. There is a medicine cabinet; there are cupboards and drawers, each neatly labeled ("antiseptic spray," "disposable gloves," "plasters"). From midday until early evening this crypt beneath the traffic is the scene of much activity, all of it presided over by Silvia Viviani, a dark and slender former opera singer who helped found the sanctuary in 1994. If you want to catch Viviani and her assistants in explanatory mode, you need to call after four in the afternoon, when the main chores of feeding and medical intervention are largely over for the day.

"How many cats do we have at the moment?" Signora Viviani said. "I don't know--I'd have to count the dockets. We keep a file for every cat that comes through. 190? 220? Out of which 30 or 40 need daily medical attention. Vaccinations, eye infections, gastroenteritis, respiratory ailments, wounds. These girls"--she introduced me briefly to her scurrying colleagues of various nationalities, including American, who left distracted smiles behind in the air as they rushed past—"they're all volunteers, you know. So am I. Not one lira of public funds do we receive. Everything here is from private donations. The food is donated. The medicines are donated. Our wonderful vet, Dr. Stefano Baldi, gives his services...You wouldn't believe it. Anything is more important than our cats to the bureaucrats in City Hall. I suppose we shouldn't grumble. At least we get a lot of moral support from them." Her tone was combative, beleaguered.

At this point in what was as much a fund-raising spiel as an explanation, a horrendous and protracted squalling broke out nearby. It sounded like a cat being put without haste through a mangle. I glanced at Signora Viviani with some surprise. Her whole face had clouded, and she seemed near tears. "Oh, it's dreadful," she said. "That's Alessia." Alessia turned out to be the cat, not an apprentice vet. She was suffering from a resistant form of panleucopenia (a common feline typhoid) that required very painful injections. Eventually the poor creature fell silent, though not, I trusted, terminally so, and one of Signora Viviani's older aides reappeared looking shaken and carrying an empty syringe. The other cats in the room seemed blithely unaffected by their comrade's torment, having scarcely opened an eye. Evidently most of them had been through the medical mill; practically all were missing the tips of their right ears, the sign that they were neutered and had almost certainly been through the hands of one of the few cat sanctuaries like this one.

"Through our hands—that's the point," said Signora Viviani. "We rescue these animals, treat them, feed them up, and get them settled—because you've no idea how traumatized some of them are when we get them. Terrified and sick. Sometimes it takes hours to catch them." With this, she nodded toward a long-handled thing like a butterfly net, but a good deal stouter. I had already noticed the scratches up and down the volunteers' hands and arms. "But eventually we want them to go off to nice homes." She indicated a cage containing two sleek and docile cats that were going by air to Germany the next day to a foster home. "Last year, when we acquired nearly 300 new cats, we managed to get 130 adopted. I tell you, we work hard here. It's all done for love."

There is no doubt that the Torre Argentina cats are the privileged few. Neutered, they don't have to compete for sexual partners; tended, they are largely free of disease. They frisk and loll among the temple fragments beneath the traffic's roar. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Rome, the thousands of other cats—cats less fortunate than these or than Leo—walk amid the jumbled stones of fallen greatness. They live and die like weeds among the shattered columns and inscriptions, in that walled-off world half glimpsed through occasional grating, behind long-forgotten grills whose padlocks have rusted into flaking metal lumps. A sordid world, like an unkempt zoo. A world full of mounds of discarded orange spaghetti on sheets of newspaper beside iron bars already clotted with rotten food. Flies buzz, dried-out pasta shells crunch underfoot. The breeze wafts a lion-house smell of dusty fur and urine.

James Hamilton-Paterson is the author of Ghosts of Manila and, most recently, Three Miles Down: A Hunt for Sunken Treasure.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!