Visitors flock to the Roman ruins at Torre Argentina each year to marvel at what remains of the ancient architecture (and maybe to over-dramatically shout, “Et tu, Brute?” at the famed location of Julius Caesar’s assassination). Not all visitors, however, come for the history and beauty of the ruins; some come to sunbathe on the stones, leap gracefully from pillar to pillar, and clean themselves in full view of the touring public — these frolicking felines frequent the area so consistently that they have earned one site in central Rome the nickname “cat forum.”
For the past twenty years, the Torre Argentina Cat Shelter has taken responsibility for feeding, vaccinating, and caring for the local population of feral cats, which have become something of a tourist attraction themselves. “People are interested more in cats than in monuments”, said shelter founder Lia Dequel. “The two together are fantastic.”
But now, national archaeological officials have issued an eviction notice, saying that the long-standing (but never officially authorized) shelter poses a threat to the safety and upkeep of the historic landmarks it abuts. The cats, they say, are not the issue and will be allowed to stay–a decision that seems counter-intuitive to shelter workers like Dequel. “If I leave these cats here, who sterilizes them? They wouldn’t go to [a] doctor and say, ‘Hi, doctor, sterilize me,’ or ‘vaccinate me,’ or [to] be fed”. Other shelter-supporters were less subdued in their comments. “If they want war, we’ll give them war…The cats need us”, said Silvia Viviani, another of the shelter’s founders.
On the unenviable flip side of the argument stand the officials charged with preserving the local historic sites.
“The cat ladies are occupying one of the most important sites in Largo Argentina, and that is incompatible with the preservation of the monument”, said Fedora Filippi, the Culture Ministry archaeologist responsible for the area. She went on to reiterate that “This isn’t about the cats…I wouldn’t touch a cat. I live with one so I’m not against cats…[but] it’s our responsibility to protect Italy’s archaeological patrimony and to apply the law.”
The “cat ladies” have posted a petition to the Culture Ministry on their website that’s already gained thousands of signatures. An American-born petition has also cropped up, demonstrating the international attention garnered by this story. While we are self-described “cat-people”, we can see the merits of both arguments (no one wants to see the cats overpopulate and suffer from preventable diseases, and no one wants historic monuments to crumble into dust). That said, we also can’t help but feel some sympathy for anyone trying to fight a PR battle against a cute and fuzzy creature; no matter how honorable your intentions, that’s PR Kryptonite.