Most visitors to Italy's capital city come to experience ancient ruins, bask in its history, and enjoy carbonara pasta. But animal lovers and travelers who are interested in quirky attractions will fall in love with the street cats of Rome.
Rome has an estimated 300,000 feral cats roaming its streets. But rather than considering them a nuisance, the city council actually supports the cats as part of Rome's ancient heritage. In 2001, the cats living in the Coliseum, the Forum, and Torre Argentina were officially named part of the city's "bio-heritage."
In antiquity, the cat was highly valued for defending mankind against rodent-borne diseases like the plague and was even worshipped by some sects of Ancient Rome, a tradition brought over from the neighboring Egyptian Empire.
The Cat Sanctuary of Torre Argentina
The Torre Argentina is a plaza in Rome that was originally excavated in 1929 and contains remains of four ancient temples and is only a seven-minute walk from the Pantheon. The site is most famous for being the location where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the Ides of March in 44 BCE.
Visitors to the site today will find much more than run-down temples, however. There are feral cats crawling all over the ruins, and the many felines of Rome seem to gather in this one specific spot.
Part of the reason they collect around the Torre Argentina is the Cat Sanctuary that exists inside. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary began in 1993 in an excavated area under the street which was used as a night shelter for cats and a storage place for food. Through donations from visiting tourists and fundraising efforts, the sanctuary evolved into a professional operation, taking care of the cats by feeding, spaying, and providing medical assistance while sharing funds with the poorer sanctuaries around Rome when they were available.
The Roman Cat Ladies
Since the Torre Argentina was first excavated in 1929, a revolving group of women called le gattare, or "the cat ladies," have provided food and care for the many cats around the Torre Argentina. After the creation of the Cat Sanctuary, a number of volunteers—primarily women from a diverse group of countries—began to assist with the care, especially with the senior and sick animals.
In addition to general care, the gattare also vaccinate newly arrived cats, help to spay and neuter them, and also organize adoption events to find permanent homes for as many animals as possible.
If you're visiting Rome, it isn't realistic to adopt a cat to bring back in your luggage. However, you can "distance adopt" one of these strays. Older or handicapped cats that have more trouble finding a permanent home are available for distance adoption online. You simply send a regular donation to the Cat Sanctuary in the name of your "adopted" cat, and the gattare in return will send you updates and photos of the pet.
The Cat Sanctuary is an interesting stop for any tourist in Rome who is looking for a break from the typical ruins, and a must-see attraction for all cat lovers.