The Cat King of Rome

[An edited version published as “Cats Among the Ruins” in the 3 February 2009 issue of The Christian Science Monitor.]

“The Cat King of Rome”

Nelson BookcoverGazing into a huge, rectangular hole with four Roman temples, I’m searching for Nelson, the one-eyed king. I walk along the metal fence surrounding the dig as big as a soccer field. Somewhere among the crumbling stones 16 feet below street level, I hope to find the feline modern-day ruler of these ancient ruins.

Only a five-minute walk from the Pantheon, Sacred Area of Largo Argentina rests at the heart of the Eternal City. Behind me, a tram clatters into a terminus. Pedestrians bustle, vehicles rev, and mopeds blare. But below me sprawls a world un-trampled by humankind. Wild grass grows under Italian umbrella-pines, the green carpet highlighting the grayish travertine brick pavements. Stone steps ascend to the temples’ roofless pillared porticoes. Amongst the vestige of the lost era, a colony of cats is lazing or playing in the sun.

My search for the feline kingdom began after seeing some touristy calendars and postcards of Roman cats posing at the Coliseum, or lounging on the colossal marble foot of Constantine, or napping atop a fallen Corinthian capital.

When Egypt fell under the Roman Empire, the cult of cat-headed goddess Bastet crossed the Mediterranean and grabbed the hearts of Roman citizens. Its worship became so popular, overshadowing the reverence of the emperor, that eventually an imperial decree banned the cats. So the idea of the feline descendants surviving within the imperial ruins caught my curiosity.

My search led me to the largest cat colony in Rome—the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary—and to the story of Nelson.

At the western corner, I spot a one-eyed cat. He’s perched on an old Roman wall, his eye jittering over the flow of pedestrians. Near him, metal stairs lead down onto a small courtyard. There a few cats saunter in the shades of a trellis work of blooming vines. The sanctuary occupies a cave, an excavated section of a temple buried under the bustling Via Florida.

Inside, Daniele Petrucci, an assistant veterinarian, tells me the one-eyed cat I saw is not Nelson. “That’s Hamlet,” he says. “We have many one-eyed cats.” He shows me a children’s book, Nelson the One-eyed King. On the back cover is a photograph—a white, furry one-eyed creature of a mixed Persian breed. “Nelson died in November 2000,” Daniele says. The king is gone but today about 250 cats call his kingdom their home.

So how did the cat colony start?

About 14 years ago, Lia Dequel, a retired cruise-ship boutique director, and Silvia Viviani, a retired opera singer, started helping the abandoned cats. Over time, their simple acts of kindness grew into an operation. Now, they work full time, supported by donations and volunteers. Helpers living in Rome handle the administration, conduct free guided tours of the ruins, and care for the sick or injured cats. Others come from all over the world, some for a few days, some for weeks. They help around the facility or assist visitors who drop by at the small reception area with a gift shop.

New cats arrive almost daily. Each is given a name, then photographed, registered, medically treated if needed, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and then if it has a right demeanor put up for adoption. Additionally, the sanctuary supports 40 other smaller cat colonies in Rome with food and medical needs.

“We are considered squatters,” explains Dequel, preparing a shelter for a sick male cat just brought in. She hangs a plate with the cat’s name, Zanche, on the cage. Then she drapes a thick cloth over the top; the cave turns cold and damp at night. “The city has plans to excavate the temple,” she says, “and we’re in the way.”

A visitor drops by. Miesa Myrick, a United Airlines flight attendant, hands Dequel an envelope.

A year ago, Myrick was on a layover in Rome. Not knowing anything about the sanctuary, she walked by Torre Argentina. “I saw a little tiger kitty playing on the stairs of a ruin,” she says. ”It had only one eye.”

She adopted the kitten, named Durer, and flew him back first-class to her home in Maryland. Wanting to do more to help the cat sanctuary, she threw a toga party. The guests in Roman garbs saw videos and photographs of the rescued cats. The envelope she handed contains their donations, the kindheartedness of the people from across the sea and ocean.

Nelson would be pleased so many people care. He too was an abandoned cat.

“It all happened 13 years ago,” says Deborah D’Alessandro, the author of Nelson the One-eyed King. “A big furry white cat arrived, its eye dislodged, shot out by a kid with a BB gun.” He took the name from Lord Nelson, the famous English Admiral, because of his airy perch on the Roman wall, with his furry mane fluffed over his large body. He soon attracted the admiration of local people. Tourists, too, paused to pay homage to him. Some locals brought him gifts of gourmet cat foods.

“I wrote Nelson’s story to be another voice,” D’Alessandro says, “letting people know what goes on every day in the center of Rome.” After my visit I gaze down one more time into the Sacred Area of Largo Argentina.

Forgotten among the ruins, a white marble slab marks the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated. In time I’ll probably forget about this obscure marker. However, I’ll long remember Nelson’s story and the many kindhearted people that run his feline kingdom.

*** The End ***

Torre Argentina

Sacred Area of Largo Argentina

(Click Here to Read “Cats Among the Ruins” Published in The Christian Science Monitor)

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