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Is Roman pride under assault by cats sheltered at ancient cultural site?

Nick SquiresThe Christian Science Monitor

It is located next to the exact spot where, according to legend, Julius Caesar uttered the immortal words "et tu, Brute?" But now, 2,000 years later, the ruined temples and fallen pillars of Rome’s Largo Argentina are caught up in a fresh, albeit rather less bloody, confrontation: Should the historical site remain a shelter to hundreds of homeless cats?

Authorities in the city say that a cat refuge tucked into the corner of the architectural area should be closed because it is unhygienic and was built without any proper planning permission. The founders of the sanctuary argue they provide a vital service, taking in strays, sterilizing them, and giving them food and medicine. The seemingly parochial row has caused uproar in the Italian capital, where Romans have lived side by side with cats since ancient times.

The cats – there were 250 of them this week – have free run of the adjoining archaeological remains and can be seen lounging in the sun on broken bits of marble, padding along fallen pillars, and dozing on the corrugated iron roofs which protect the monuments from the rain.

But heritage experts say the sanctuary, built on top of the pedestal of an ancient Roman temple, is an affront to an archaeological zone of world significance, right in the heart of the city.

The temple – and the cat sanctuary on top of it – is a few yards from where Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. It is built inside a cave-like space beneath a staircase leading into the archaeological remains, a sunken area now surrounded by shops, apartments, a theater and a tram stop.

“It is extraordinary that Rome council allowed a structure of this kind to be built in an area of such archaeological importance,” Adriano La Regina, a former head of Rome’s archaeological authority, told the Italian press this week.

“How was it possible that these cat lovers were able to construct their refuge on an ancient monument?” Andrea Carandini, former president of a national heritage council, told La Repubblica newspaper. The national cultural heritage commission said this week that the refuge should be closed down.

The issue even arose in parliament this week. A senator from the center-left Democratic Party said it was “unthinkable” that ancient Roman ruins should be treated in such a way and asked the heritage minister, Lorenzo Ornaghi, what he was going to do about it.

But the volunteers who run the refuge, a tiny space packed with cats of every color and pattern, vowed to fight the eviction order. They denied that they had built the facility illegally, saying the space they took over 19 years ago had been dirty, damp, and neglected. Nor was it ancient, they say – the roof of the subterranean refuge is held up by massive reinforced concrete beams which were part of a road project that was begun in the 1930s and then abandoned.

“This was an ugly, dirty place without electricity or water when we moved in,” says Lia Dequel, one of the founders of the refuge, where tourists can buy cat-related t-shirts, postcards, and fridge magnets. “The authorities say we built it, but how could we ever have put in these huge beams? The only things we put up are a few plastic dividing walls.”

Voluntary contributions pay for up to 4,000 abandoned cats to be sterilized each year, so that they cannot breed and worsen Rome’s stray cat problem. In the nearly two decades since the refuge was set up, 27,000 cats have been sterilized.

“Without us here the cats would be begging for food on the sidewalks and getting run over by trams and buses on the streets – it would be a disaster,” says Mrs. Dequel. “We are financially self-sufficient – we get no money at all from Rome council. And in some tourist guides we are among Rome’s top 10 attractions. We will fight this attempt to close us down.”

“From what the authorities are saying, you would think we were occupying the Parthenon,” says Silvia Viviani, co-founder of the refuge. “I’m a Roman and I’m very proud of our ancient heritage, but we are not damaging anything here.”

Carla Camilli, a volunteer, says many cats and kittens were found after being dumped in the archaeological site. “We take in old, blind, and disabled cats – we treat them all the same.”

The refuge attracts tens of thousands of tourists a year, who descend the metal steps leading down from street level to stroke the tabbies, gingers, and smoky gray cats.

Visitors are encouraged to adopt the felines by paying for their upkeep or to take them away and give them a proper home.

“It’s a fantastic place,” says Cristina Lazzaroni, who was visiting Rome from Milan. “I cannot see that it is damaging the ruins. Romans have always lived with cats. These people are doing good work.”

The cat sanctuary gained a valuable ally last Friday. Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of the city, said he was in favor of keeping it open, putting himself at odds with cultural heritage officials.

“I’m on the cats’ side,” he said in a Tweet. “And so is my own cat, Certosino.”