Rome cat shelter appeals for online donations and distance adoptions amid a difficult year.
Rome's Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, located among the ruins of the Largo Argentina archaeological area, has provided shelter, food and love to cats in the city centre for more than 25 years.
The shelter, which is dependent on donations and volunteers, is more in need than ever of support following the recent covid-19 lockdown and the almost total lack of tourists in Rome.
The sanctuary receives no state funding and relies solely on donations from the visiting public and whoever supports its distance adoption scheme.
Where is Rome's cat sanctuary?
Reached by a steep set of steps from the Via Arenula corner of Largo Argentina, the shelter has low ceilings and vibrates every time the number 8 tram passes overhead.
Passersby stop to take photos of the cats lounging in the remains of four temples from the Roman Republic era, as well as part of Pompey's Theatre.
Most famously, the cats' backyard is also the scene of Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC. During excavations of the archaeological site in 1929, cats began to make their home among the ruins.
This led to the creation of a colony of stray and abandoned cats cared for by a succession of gattare ('cat ladies') until the establishment of the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in October 1994.
How many cats are at the sanctuary?
"We have 89 cats currently living with us, many free in the ruins and some who are disabled, deaf, blind and have incurable health problems like kidney failure, and so need daily medication" – volunteer Fiona Shaw told Wanted in Rome – "These cats have with us a home for life."
Who founded the cat sanctuary?
Shaw said that the shelter was founded by "two special ladies": Lia Dequel who passed away in 2013, and Silvia Viviani, a retired opera singer, now aged 80, who still works at the shelter several days a week.
In addition to providing cats with food, shelter, medicine and love, an important aspect of the volunteers' work is “sterilising cats in and around Rome to keep the feral cat population down, working hard for the city by doing so," Shaw says. "We offer sterilisations to other colonies of cats cared for by gattare and when required we provide medical care to any cats in need. Last year we sterilised over 6,000 cats."
Wanted in Rome recently spent a morning in the shelter's inner sanctum, reached via two locked doors, which houses its most precious and fragile residents.
The walls of this long, bright room are lined with crates, one for each of the cats, all of which are sick or disabled. Many of these animals have in the past met with neglect or injury.
Luckily cats have nine lives however and these felines get to spend the rest of their days surrounded by compassion, in what truly is a sanctuary for them.
Each cat has a name and all have their own personality. Some are meek, others have a mischievous streak. Some wish to be petted, others wish to play. We met some of the shelter's best known characters, and found out a little about them.
Cast of characters
Calibano is blind after being hit by a car, receiving terrible injuries to his jaw. Castellano, curious and sweet, was also in a road accident: he has only three legs but that doesn't stop him from shuffling around with his pals at surprising speed.
Calibano is part of the so-called “basket gang” of friends, sharing his sleep with Brutus who is deaf and blind, Grumpy who is blind in one eye and suffering from stage 4 kidney failure, Debra who has only one eye and little Mozart who was born with a neurological condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia.
While we were there a volunteer named Monica introduced us to four tiny kittens, believed to be about 20 days old, who were found abandoned on a street in Rome.
These little creatures were about to be taken home by one of the volunteers, where they will be minded until they complete their vaccination cycle and become accustomed to humans, before being put up for adoption.
The shelter is a dangerous place for kittens: there are too many endemic diseases for their immature immune systems.
Laura, another volunteer, told us that it while it would be relatively easy to find good homes for the cute kittens, it was decidedly more difficult to rehome the old and sick cats who in any case, she said, were better off at the shelter where they are assured expert care and attention.
How can I volunteer at the cat sanctuary?
Silvia Zerenghi, who oversees both the distance adoption programme and public relations at the sanctuary, told Wanted in Rome that the shelter is always looking for new cat-loving volunteers, particularly those who speak English.
“Most of our visitors, and donations, are from foreign tourists. English is the international language and it's easier for a native speaker to explain what to do, even if all of us speak at least two languages.”
Zerenghi says the majority of the volunteers are Italian but there are also foreigners on the team, including Fiona from the UK, Martina and Angela from Germany, Gilles from Belgium, Isabel from Switzerland and Anneke from Holland.
Asked about who owns the premises, Zerenghi is upfront. “We are squatters in the shelter. We know it's a problem, but we occupied some neglected storehouses in 1993 and during all these years we managed to have running water, electricity and a phone line, we paved the floor, set up spaces to work and to accommodate cats.”
She says the site is the property of the city's cultural superintendency, pointing out that they are not permitted to rent out an historical asset. “We'd love to rent the shelter! But we are happy if we can continue to be squatters without any problem,” she says.
How can I support Rome's cat sanctuary?
As for how people can help, Zerenghi directs cat-lovers to the adoption programme on the sanctuary's website, saying: “People can sponsor a cat, a very special one to feel their own.” The shelter's friends in the Facebook group Gatti di Roma – Roman Cats also offer their creative works to raise funds, she says.
Given that Rome's tourism industry has hit a brick wall this year, the usual steady stream of visitors has dried up. The sanctuary is desperately seeking online donations, which can be made through PayPal on its website.
Those living in Rome can help by making a donation in person or purchasing gifts directly from the shelter, where they can also meet the happy Roman cats who have found their forever home.
By Andy Devane
Where can I find Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary?
The shelter is located on the corner of Via Arenula and Largo di Torre Argentina, not far from Piazza Venezia in central Rome. The sanctuary is open every day 12.00-18.00. For details about the shelter, its residents and the work carried out by volunteers, see website.
This article was published in the July-August online edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
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Rome's cat sanctuary among the ruins
Largo di Torre Argentina angolo, scavi archeologici, Largo Arenula, 00186 Roma RM, Italy