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  • Writer's pictureMaddie Franz

Missing your cat at home? Visit this cat sanctuary in Rome

By Maddie Franz

The historical district in the center of Rome is home to innumerable ancient artifacts, architectural oddities, and hidden gems. What few expect from the area just a few blocks south of the Pantheon is a cat sanctuary based in an archeological site several meters below street level.

Nestled between intersections and gift shops, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary has been in operation since 1929. The site was discovered in 1926 when the city was demolishing an old neighborhood, leading to its excavation three years later. Four temples were found, labelled with letters due to their disputed dedications. This is also the location where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E.

Remains of Temple B, the newest of four temples at Torre Argentina. Cats can often be seen sunbathing on the travertine and tuff blocks throughout the site. January 12th, 2022

The oldest of the temples was constructed around the 4th century B.C.E., likely in dedication to Feronia, goddess of fertility. The next temple to be was dedicated to Juturna, the water goddess of the Sabines. The largest temple, built in the 2nd century B.C.E., honored either Lares Permarini or the Nymphs. A fourth temple built in 111 B.C.E. devotes itself to Fortuna Huiusce Diei, or “Fortune of the Present Day” in celebration of a Roman victory against Cimbri of Viterbo.

Shortly after the site's excavation, stray cats began congregating in the protected square where they were safe from being bothered by cars and people. From then until 1993, the cats were fed by good Samaritans who lived nearby, known as cat ladies or “gattare.” That year, two women would take charge and improve the consistency of care. Lia Dequel and Silvia Vivani spent the next year working in a small underground space next to one of the temples. They used their own funds to feed and sterilize over 90 cats without ready access to electricity and water on-site.

In 1994, the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals lent their support to Dequel and Vivani, who were able to officially found the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. With donations and volunteer work from tourists and locals, the shelter quickly expanded in resources and popularity. They were able to streamline vet care to make it affordable enough that the sanctuary now donates to smaller organizations in Rome with emphasis on spaying and neutering.

A young gray and white tabby stands on a wall close to the stairway where visitors can get closer to the ruins. Many cats will eagerly approach visitors, but only a few are open to being stroked. January 28th, 2022.

Today, the shelter gives thorough care to its borders. Every cat that enters the sanctuary is given a thorough checkup. After getting a name, they receive treatment for any parasites they may have picked up on the streets. The cats receive a round of standard feline vaccinations and are tested for FeLV and FIV. FeLV is infectious, so any positive cats are re-homed to keep the rest of the population safe. Every cat is spayed or neutered, and when they’re acclimated to their surroundings, they’re allowed to roam the ruins and greet guests. Healthy cats are up for adoption, including the kittens raised by foster homes.

Torre Argentina is a popular stop for anyone in the area. Cats can be seen for much of the day and can even be pet from 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM every day when the underground space is open to the public. Most of the residents are wary of people, but there are plenty of cats that welcome guests. One of the most popular cats is Paoletto, a big black and white tom that loves anyone who gives him a scratch on the head. His lame leg means he’s a permanent border, as are many strays who make their way to the sanctuary.

Paoletto, a black and white tom, receives a good scratch on the back of his head. He’s one of the friendliest cats at Torre Argentina.

Residents like Paoletto that can’t be adopted out are able to be “adopted at a distance” – a sponsor program where those who want to support the sanctuary can continuously fund the care of their favorite cats. This is a great option for cat lovers at the John Felice Rome Center who would have more than a hard time shipping a cat across the Atlantic. The shelter is always looking for donations of cat care products, money, and cheek scratches.

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