Roman Cats

A Snooze at the Piramide

Neighbourhood Cat Shelter

Someone has gone to the trouble of building a little cat shelter on the sidewalk on our street. It is covered with black plastic, spotlessly clean and seems to be equipped with fresh bowls of food and water every day. I’m very intrigued as to who is tending to it but so far I’ve only seen a couple of cats taking advantage of this rather pleasant abode for a cat. On a recent visit to the Piramde, we saw a couple of huge cats like little baby lions. How did they get so fat? Well around the corner, at the base of the ruins was a little trolley with bowls of cat food and water.

Cat Banquet by Le Gattare

I guess all you cat lovers will know this but I was fascinated to find that there is an army of women (and some men) in Rome who go around feeding stray cats. They even have a name: Le Gattare or Cat Ladies. Apparently, there are 300,000 or so feral cats in Rome. Yet they all look sleek and well fed and one sees them indolently lying around the monuments. I have not yet seen a stray cat looking mangy or hungry. At Torre Argentina, the Roman ruins right in the middle of the city, there is a cat shelter where cats are treated and neutered, the females such that they still maintain their heat cycles so that the males are not tempted to go elsewhere for their pleasures! Money for this comes from public funds as well as from private donations. How did all this come about? Rome has a law whereby its illegal to euthanize a cat and a cat actually has the right to live where it was born. A 1991 biocultural heritage law declared that 5 or more cats living together in a natural urban environment cannot be moved or chased away.

Vatican Museums: Egyptian Tomb Funerary Object

Cats in Rome and elsewhere actually originated in Egypt. As far back as 2 – 3,000 BC they were regarded as sacred animals. Funerary objects in Egyptians tombs often included bronze or stone carvings of cats. They became domesticated in Egypt and were used to keep down the rodent population in granaries and fields but were still regarded as sacred and the penalty for killing a cat even in 500 BC was death. After the fall of the Egyptian empire, they spread to Italy and other parts of the world in ships. They were instrumental in keeping the rat population under control in the city of Rome but somehow, in the Middle Ages, cats fell into disrepute. Pope Gregory IX around 1232, declared the cat to be a diabolical creature and the embodiment of the devil. Too bad as they might have kept the rat population down during the plague and Black Death! In Elizabethan England, people who owned cats were suspected of being witches and were sometimes burned at the stake together with their cats. I guess people finally came to their senses when they appreciated the importance of cats in keeping rodents at bay. ┬áPresent day cats are so well fed and pampered in many places that I’m not sure they would be any use catching mice, and of course nobody has mice in their homes do they?

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