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Girl with Cat (Blue)

The International Writers Magazine
Roma - Archives Travel

Eva Bell

Sightseeing in Rome this Summer had been exhausting. Now I just wanted a leisurely drive through the city, and jumped into the first bus that came my way. I was almost dozing off when I caught sight of the imposing Porta San Paulo, and close by it, a pyramid. It was at the end of Via Marmorata, and I got off, curious to look inside the pyramid.

Searching for the entrance, I followed the wall of a compound. Half way along was a window, and directly in front of me, was the grave of John Keats. He being one of my favourites, I had to visit the cemetery, and found  that he was in good company with Shelley and Goethe. This place was exclusively for protestants.
Strangely, the place was overrun by cats of different shapes, sizes and colours. They didn’t scamper away but stared me in the eye. Sometimes they brushed my legs with such familiarity, as though craving for human contact. They spilled into the Pyramid Complex at one end of the cemetery. Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Weber got some inspiration for his Opera “Cats” from here.
The leaflet I got from the information centre was brief. But the volunteers I met were more forthcoming. The first burial in the cemetery took place in 1738, and they presume the cats have been there ever since. Some were abandoned when ill or pregnant or when their owners moved away; Some just got fed up caring for pets. There were about 200 in the colony, but the number escalated in Summer. Life was not easy. The cemetery teemed with predators like owl, crows and ravens.
The cat ladies or ‘gattare’ are volunteers, and devote one afternoon weekly or monthly to care for the cats. They come from all walks of life, and help in feeding the cats, giving them medication or taking them to the vet, and cleaning out the the cages and surroundings. They also try to relocate the cats, and advise the prospective owners on responsible cat ownership.
Many years ago, a British traveller Leonard Hawksey was appalled at the inhuman treatment meted out to stray cats in Rome. Back in Britain, he started the Anglö-Italian Society for protection of Animals (AISPA). This society has provided cages for sick animals, and outside shelters for winter. Twice a year, vaccines, medicines and disinfectants are sent in bulk. But a major part of donations comes from ordinary people who supply rags, clothes, disinfectants, brooms and foodstuff. Money donations are made to:
AIPSA at 136, Baker Street, London.
Since 1989, Matilda Talli and her band of volunteers care for these cats. They are fed, vaccinated, neutered, loved like babies, and are free from rabies. People consider them gaurdians of the Departed.
This reminded me of some cats I had seen, roaming around in the Torre Argentina.  From where I stayed, I often travelled by a tram that brought me here every morning. As the ruins were on a lower level than the road, I had not paid much attention to them. They were four temples dating back to 3rd century B.C. Under Temple B, was a small excavated area, which served as a shelter for 90 cats. This place was on the tourist itinerary. Sometimes they made small donations towards the shelter. But more interestingly, it was the beginning of inter-country adoptions. One lady had looked after these animals from 1929 to 1993,until her death. But the woman who took over from her, nearly ended up in bankruptcy, until friends pooled in.
Cats have been an integral part of the scenery in Rome for years. Artists have painted them into their landscapes and paintings. Musicians have sung of them. I heard that there is an Italian comedy called
Il Rugatino’ about an indigent man who used to pilfer the food of the cats in the Pyramid Colony.
Next time you are in Rome, be sure to stop by give a cat a hug.

© Eva Bell September 2006

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