“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.