On a recent trip to Italy, Jem Vanston stumbled across a cat sanctuary steeped in history.
When in Rome you can do many interesting things – visit the Colosseum, throw coins in the Trevi Fountain or just eat Italian ice cream all day long. But animal lovers can also pay a visit to the wonderful Torre Argentina (TA) Cat Sanctuary.
Located in the heart of Rome next to the ruins of four ancient temples, the sanctuary was started in 1993 to care for a cat colony living in the excavations. The site was earmarked for an apartment block development in the late 80s, but as is common in lasagne-style history-layered Rome, when they started digging, they uncovered ruins dating from 300 – 400 BC, so work was halted.
Despite opposition from some, the cat sanctuary was then set up in a basement to one side of these ruins and has been there ever since. It is entirely reliant on donations and is run by an international group of volunteers.
Sadly, the sanctuary has a constant battle with various municipal authorities who would dearly like to shut it down – and they nearly succeeded in 2012 until there was a change in the political situation. The sanctuary’s position is still precarious, however, as it only has ‘squatter status’ on the site.
When I paid a visit on a sunny day in May 2015, I was shown around by Italian volunteer, Laura, who introduced me to many of the cats in residence – Asmin, Sky, Lady Macbeth, three-legged Golum (so-called because of his wonky walk!), Raptus (also three-legged), as well as blind cats named Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. They are all very well looked after and much-loved by the volunteers 365 days a year.
There are 160 cats in residence at the moment, though no kittens. Due to the risk of infection, these are fostered and socialised so they get a healthy start in life and have a better chance of adoption. In 2014 there were 158 adoptions from the centre, but some – often blind, deaf or older cats with FIV and other conditions – are permanent residents. The cat sanctuary runs a neutering programme too, which is much needed in Italy where some refuse to neuter pets for religious reasons.
As well as taking care of homeless cats, the TA Cat Sanctuary promotes TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) to stabilise the number of strays in cat colonies in Rome, reduce the spread of FIV, FeLV, blindness due to the herpes virus, and other threats.
Many cats in the centre are blind, and there are a few without tails or missing a limb, usually as a result of road traffic accidents.
The president and co-founder of the sanctuary, Silvia Viviani, told me that all abandoned felines brought in are neutered and vaccinated initially. Those with illnesses receive treatment and are kept isolated in pens until better.
Italy does not really seem to have a national organised system similar to those in the UK, so the existence of such independent sanctuaries is vital. Having said this, the cat colonies in Rome – at the Colosseum and elsewhere – are actually officially protected by the state.
On the day I visited the sanctuary there were people of all ages and from several different countries petting the cats. Many had obviously just stumbled across the sanctuary when on holiday in Rome, but many Italians who live outside of Rome also call by when in the capital.
The centre raises funds via its shop – a handy place to buy souvenirs or presents such as cat sanctuary calendars, T-shirts, fridge magnets, etc. Needless to say, donations are always welcome – and the centre runs an ‘adopt a cat from a distance’ scheme for supporters all over the world.
One thing is certain – anyone who visits the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary is sure of a warm Roman welcome from the amazing group of women volunteers, not to mention all the lucky cats they care for.
(Author of ‘A Cat Called Dog’)
Visit www.romancats.com for more information on how you can sponsor a cat or donate for the care of the permanent boarders and its ever-expanding neutering scheme.
Open 365 days a year noon till 6pm.