“How was it possible that these cat lovers were able to construct their refuge on an ancient monument?” asked Andrea Carandini, a former president of the national cultural heritage council.
But the volunteers who run the refuge, a tiny, cave-like space packed with cats of every colour and pattern, have vowed to fight the eviction order. They said they provide a vital service for the city, taking in strays, sterilising them, and giving them food and medicine.
The cats – there are currently 250 of them – have free run of the adjoining remains and can be seen lounging in the sun on broken bits of marble, padding along fallen pillars and sleeping curled up on the corrugated iron roofs which protect the monuments from rain.
“Without us here the cats would be begging for food on the pavements and getting run over by trams and buses on the streets – it would be a disaster,” said Lia Dequel, one of the founders of the refuge.
The volunteers also denied that they had built the facility illegally, saying the space they took over 19 years ago had been dirty, damp and abandoned. The site itself was discovered in the 1920s after falling into decay at the end of the Roman Empire and lying buried for centuries.
“From what the authorities are saying, you would think we were occupying the Parthenon,” said 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.” The refuge attracts tens of thousands of tourists a year, who descend the metal steps leading down from street level to stroke the cats and buy cat-related t-shirts, fridge magnets and other souvenirs, the money from which helps keep the place going.
“It’s a fantastic place,” said Cristina Lazzaroni, who was visiting from Milan. “I cannot see that it is damaging the ruins. Romans have always lived with cats. These people are doing good work.”
However, the issue has now even been taken up by parliament, with a senator from the centre-left Democratic Party declaring last week that it was “unthinkable” that ancient Roman ruins should be treated in such a way
Valerio Massimo Manfredi, an archaeologist, insisted the cats should be transferred elsewhere. “This is an extraordinarily important area that dates from the Roman Republican era and is where Julius Caesar was murdered,” he said.
So what do you think? Should the cats stay or go? Vote here…