The sacred ground our cats walk on was also shared by another Roman - Julius Caesar. It was here in Torre Argentina, in the year 44 BC, that one of the most illustrious dictators was stabbed by his rival Brutus.
Almost 20 centuries have passed since then, but Caesar's spirit surely lives on in some of our aristocratic cats at rule over their temples with pride.
1929 was the year the sacred area of Torre Argentina was excavated. This was also the year the history of the cats' residency began. Stray and abandoned felines took refuge in the protected area below street level. From 1929 until 1993, the cats were more or less regulary fed by a succession of cat ladies or "gattare".
One of the most famous of these cat lovers was the great Italian filmstar Anna Magnani. While working at Teatro Argentina which borders the ruins, Ms. Magnani would spend her breaks feeding her four legged friends. This film legend, famous for her heart-tugging performances, died in the 1960's.
Lia and Silvia started working with the cats in 1993 when they began helping a woman who was running the show alone: feeding, spaying and neutering all the cats. Her generous efforts put her on the verge of an economic and emotional collapse. Soon Lia and Silvia realised there was a lot more work than the three women could manage. In that year the cat population was 90 and growing due to the irresponsibility of people abandoning their cats and kittens, perhaps to go on vacation. And so, Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary was born!
Working conditions were primitive to say the least. A cave like area under the street had been unwittingly created by the construction of the street and the pillars that sustain it long before the cat shelter began. It had a floor space of about 100 sq. meters and it began as a night shelter for the cats and as a storage place for cat food. It was a difficult and frustrating job. Caring for more than 90 cats in a damp underground space, in many places so low that one cannot stand up and no electricity or running water. For almost a year and a half Silvia and Lia worked under these conditions, hoping for a breakthrough or a guide through this dark period.
Their prayers were answered in 1995 when a savior arrived: an English woman named Molga Salvalaggio. She told Silvia and Lia about the wonderful achievements of certain English organizations who worked in animal protection and she put them in contact with A.I.S.P.A. (Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals). A.I.S.P.A. was the first organisation to give material as well as moral support. In addition, they introduced Silvia and Lia to English resources concerning stray cats and solutions to frequent problems who studied this invaluable information and began the slow process of imitating English role models.
The first job was to raise desperately needed funds. The primitive location had one great advantage; it was a tourist attraction because of the historical and archaeological significance of the ruins. Painfully swallowing pride and embarrassment Silvia and Lia started approaching tourists who seemed more interested in the cats than the ruins and asked for donations. Unbelievably it worked! Not only did they collect needed cash, they also managed to attract a certain number of volunteers; mostly women of many different nationalities, Italian, French German, American, English, Brazilian, and Dutch. Torre Argentina became a sort of United Nations for cats. To raise more money they started organizing fundraising dinners, raffles and flea market sales.
In September of 1998, a Captain of the U.S. Navy, John Henriksen and his wife Cheryl generously opened their home to 120 people for a dinner, auction and raffle, our first Gala. Later, Alexandra Richardson, wife to the British Ambassador allowed the volunteers to hold a fundraiser/Gala at her residence. Several more Gala’s followed the following years and provided badly needed funds.
With the newly found income, TA could afford cat food of better quality and the new burst of enthusiasm also motivated Silvia, Lia and their team of volunteers to become more professional and organized in daily operations. When feeding spaying and veterinary care for the TA cats had become an affordable routine, we started sharing funds also with the poorer sanctuaries around Rome but with the emphasis on spaying and neutering, they were and still are priorities.
Nelson, a one-eyed Torre Argentina cat was the main character in an award winning book by volunteer, Deborah D’Alessandro. It was published in 1999 and soon became a bestseller at the shelter drawing attention to the plight of abandoned cats. At around the same time, Barbara Palmer,published “Cat Tales”: both books contributed to the growing reputation of the shelter.
In 2000 the Sanctuary entered the new era when we were given international exposure with the gift of a website, www.romancats.com from Dutch animal rescuers and professional web designers, Micha Postma and Christiaan Schipper. On the home front, in 2001, the cats of Rome became a “bio-cultural heritage” by special proclamation of the city council. Things were moving in the right direction: as the Sanctuary grew, there was also a growing awareness suffering of the stray animals and their need for protection. The time was ripe for a public statement: in 2003, Torre Argentina Sanctuary (TA) was instrumental in the organization of a demonstration march, Cat Pride that had several thousand participants demanding protection and funding for Rome’s strays. In 2004 the production of the DVD Cats of Rome by Michael Hunt, contributed to a further diffusion of our work and our goals
TA had become more professional and record keeping had become a routine in 2001: graphs can show the upward trend in sterilisations from that year onward when 850 cats were sterilized. An all time high was reached in 2008 with 4105 sterilisations.The global economic crisis however had an effect on TA’s finances too and reflected in the disappointing result of 2908 sterilisations in 2009 when funds did not allow to do better. Motivation though grew even stronger and slowly the TNR program picked up again and in 2014 TA was proud to announce a total of 4362 sterilisations.
Between 2003 and 2010, small and big improvements marked the growth and the need for efficiency in the shelter. A tiled floor was laid down replacing the cement one that would never dry and also the installation of heating and air conditioning contributed to a better quality of life for felines and humans alike!The introduction of a workflow management system in 2006 has made office work efficient and record keeping easy.
The latest achievement happened in 2015 when we produced our very own calendar featuring our very own cats!
Over the years additional funds have gradually allowed access to vaccines, test kits for FIV/ FeLV, as well as medicines for cats with chronic conditions that have significantly contributed to healthier permanent boarders. A foster program was introduced in 2004 and protects kittens from life threatening infections in the shelter.
Although TA has always lived with a threat of eviction, it had the tacit tolerance of local authorities, Rome’s archeological department and mayors for over two decades. But in 2012, after the National Archeological Department complained the shelter had invaded a temple and had offended the dignity of the Area Sacra, it came to a confrontation. The archeological authorities launched a campaign via national newspapers, trying to turn the public opinion against the Sanctuary but never expected that petitions on TA’s behalf would collect over 30.000 signatures. The result was that some politicians began to speak out in TA’s defense and proposed a plan of compromise and cooperation. The only effort so far has been the celebration of the Ides of March in 2015 when TA was invited to participate and was acknowledged on the flyer that publicized the event.Other things have not changed, the volunteers of the Sanctuary are still squatters and the shelter is still not hooked up to the city sewage system.
The biggest blow to the Sanctuary and a very sad one to volunteers happened in 2013 with the loss of one of its founders, Lia Dequel. The moving tribute paid to her by friend and co-founder Silvia, says it all. Not a day goes by without somebody mentioning Lia, she is still present in more than one way and remains a source of inspiration and motivation.
Economic crises, local political power struggles and recently also fear of terrorism have shown their repercussions on our work and our fundraising efforts but notwithstanding these and many other setbacks we have suffered over the past 23 years, we are still here and intend to stay. We owe it to the cats, to our supporters all over the world without whom nothing described here above, would have been possible. But we owe it to ourselves too because we believe we can make a difference in making this world a better one for cats and all animals.