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In Rome, a different kind of love among the ruins

June 29, 2003|John Henderson | Special to The Times

Rome — Rome

I could feel 10 pairs of eyes staring at me. I felt like a tuna.

It was my first hour at Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary here, and I was trying to fit in. I was on all fours, applying plastic sheets to the bottom of a fence to protect the shelter where 450 stray cats huddle at night.

Behind me, in a semicircle of nearly military spacing and order, were 10 cats. Behind them stood a poster of a beautiful orange kitten, its head cocked, looking up with wide green eyes. It read, "Roman cats. Please help us." On the busy street above, some Japanese tourists were snapping our picture, and I heard the collective, heartfelt "ahhhh" that's understandable in any language.

I had been living in Rome for a year and wanted a proper souvenir of my time here. I already had a bad local painting and a set of grappa glasses. I decided on what has become a hip remembrance that insiders know embodies Rome: a cat.

Torre Argentina has been known since 44 BC as the site near where Julius Caesar was slain. It has been known since AD 1994 as the site where tourists and Romans alike can adopt cats.

Four Roman Republic temples once stood at Torre Argentina, which now resembles a "Far Side" cartoon. Around the grounds, cats sleep on 2,000-year-old blocks of marble. They hop atop ancient temples and rest in the shade of altars. They have more bowls of food and water than some nearby trattorias.

My love of cats brought me to Torre Argentina, but it's more than a sanctuary for felines. Having just lost Sport, my 18-year-old cat, I found sanctuary here too.

The symbols of Rome

The sanctuary is the brainchild of Silvia Viviani and Lia Dequel, who take in strays from all over the city, give them shots, sterilize them, feed them and find them homes with the thousands of tourists who walk down the steps. They provide food for some of the 10,000 "cat ladies," known as gattare, who comb the city looking for hungry strays.

The gattare don't have to look far. About 120,000 stray cats live in Rome, where you'll find fat, furry and seemingly healthy cats atop parked cars, in parks and, especially, among ruins. Invariably, you'll also see bits of food on little paper plates.

"Cats of Rome are symbols," says Dequel. "They live together. Roman monuments and cats belong to each other. People come here and are joyful when they see a beautiful cat on top of a capital or a column of beautiful stone. They love it. They look more at the beautiful cat than [at] the column."

The sanctuary hopes it will tug on the heartstrings of every tourist seeking Caesar's final steps. At the very least, most visitors leave a donation. Of the 654 cats abandoned at Torre Argentina in 2001, 349 were adopted, packed off to as far away as New Zealand. Every month, checks come in from half a dozen countries, and the more than 150 sponsors get snapshots and medical updates in return.

Anyone can volunteer, even a tourist who's just homesick for Fluffy. (For information, see or call 011-39-06-687-2133.) Volunteers can come for a day or a month. The only caveat: They must work. "We're not baby sitters," Dequel says.

I viewed my three days of volunteer work at Torre Argentina as a scouting mission. I hoped I'd pick a cat. Rather, I hoped one would pick me.

The sanctuary's headquarters consists of two large rooms lined with cat cages under a ceiling so low I wondered whether some of the larger cats had to duck. Cats are everywhere. On desks. On bookshelves. In closets. If you blindly reach for a telephone, you will likely pick up a calico kitten instead. Sit down for a moment and a cat will hop on your lap before you can alert authorities.

On my first day, I immediately noticed the smell. Rather, the lack of smell. There are usually 150 to 200 cats in the two rooms, and I couldn't smell a single litter box. You could eat in there. In fact, in an adjacent supply office, the two regular volunteers were munching pizza.

Dequel put me to work immediately. As the new guy, I had litter box detail. The boxes are cleaned constantly and sterilized every morning. Cleaning litter boxes is a good way to get to know the cats and them to know you.

One 6-month-old white beauty introduced herself by hopping on a table, climbing up to my shoulders and sitting on my head. (At 6 feet, 3 inches, I was the highest point in the sanctuary, so I became pretty popular.)

Leonardo, tall, gray and statuesque, sat atop the refrigerator. He is one of Torre Argentina's sad tales. An American woman temporarily living in Rome adopted him, promising she would take him back to the States. After two years, she returned to the U.S. but brought Leonardo back to the sanctuary.

"After that, no more," Dequel says. "No one can take the cats unless they keep them. We don't rent."

Hard to believe anyone would return one of these cats. They're big, fat, fluffy and apparently happy. I saw few fights. Instead I saw several little boxes where grown cats slept together like old married couples.

Hard choices

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