What I love about Romans is their passion. They’re like me. They’re very passionate about the things they love and the things they hate. And they love so many things: food, wine, art, soccer, beauty, sun and well, they love love. They also love something else that doesn’t make tourists’ radar. You have to live here a while, get to know the people, wander the streets and see a piece of Rome the locals absolutely adore.
Romans are crazy about cats. They always have been. The Etruscans brought them from Egypt in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. and during the Roman Empire, cats were considered luxury pets for the wealthy. In 1991, the city council designated cats part of the city’s “biological heritage” and any cat colony of at least five cats can not be legally removed. Today there are an estimated 300,000 cats in Rome, and the city streets are often the cats’ home. Locals make sure that cats without roofs over their heads are safe and healthy. Old women, called gattare (from “gatto,” the Italian word for cat), roam the streets with little cans of tuna or cat food. They put it on paper plates and place them near street corners, parked cars, ancient ruins, any place where stray cats hang out. Thus, all over town you have these fat, happy, healthy cats waiting to be petted. When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, I’d be walking home with my then girlfriend. She’d be talking and then look around and I’d be gone. I was over petting a cat on a car hood.
Rome even has a cat sanctuary. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, a short cat walk from where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., takes in stray cats. They feed them, clean them, give them medical attention and protection. It’s set among a large block of ruins dating to the 4th century B.C., giant chunks of marble and stone where the cats leap and sleep and play and hide. They’re friendly with the bevy of tourists who wander down the steps to look. They can even adopt them and take them home if they get them spayed or neutered. You sit down and a cat will jump on your lap and fall asleep before you can alert authorities.
In 2003 I volunteered at Torre Argentina for a week. I wrote a story about it for the Los Angeles Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jun/29/travel/tr-journalromecats) that made a proofreader cry. It was one of the greatest accomplishments of my career.
On Halloween night, the city of Rome put on its 16th annual SuperCat Show for all its cat aficionados. I could tell the popularity of cats here just by the venue. It was held at Nuova Fiera di Roma near Fiumicino, the coastal town that has Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Looking at the size of Fiera di Roma’s exhibition hall, I’m assuming when it doesn’t host cat shows it doubles as an airplane hangar. It was 50 meters long and nearly 108,000 square feet. In it were 800 cats, of which which were expected to be perused, petted and photographed over two days by about 30,000 people.
If you heard a giant “AHHHHHH!” coming from the direction of Italy about 10 days ago, that was us.
That was me. I have a proud proclamation to make: I LOVE cats. I love all wildlife. Dogs. Bears. Racoons. Ducks. South American tree sloths. I had a pet rat as a kid. I deny that played a role in my future career as a journalist. However, cats were always my favorite animal. I can relate to them. They’re very much like bachelors. They’re independent, finicky eaters, immaculate groomers, want attention on demand and then be left alone. They’re one of us. You can leave them with food and water for a couple of days and they’re fine. They’re lower maintenance than cactus and much nicer to sleep with.
I have a hard time tolerating this universal male hatred for cats. Many men are proud to proclaim it. It’s like they reinforce their manhood by not associating with a species labeled “feline.” However, it’s my theory that the one trait male cat haters have in common is they all have really, REALLY tiny penises, little itty-bitty gherkins with no real purpose in life outside of urination. I try to tell them there are pills for that. They can find contacts on their porn websites for dubious operations. But they don’t take my advice. Instead, they publicly put cats on the same level as ISIS, cockroaches and liberals.
I never meet any men like that in Italy. It’s a country where men are in touch with their manhood and sitting on a park bench with a stray cat on their lap does not threaten that. The SuperCat Show was filled with Romans who take their love of cats to the voyeur level. As I entered the hall after about a half-mile walk from the entrance, I looked down and surveyed the show. Long rows of wire pens were surrounded by people peering in and taking pictures. On a raised platform on the left side, a woman with a microphone described cats as they were paraded onto stands for closer inspection by the couple hundred spectators clicking cell cameras down below.
The first cat I saw was something called a Devon Rex, an English breed that’s as skinny as a coat hanger with ears the size of satellite dishes. It looks like a miniature Sphinx. But even this species is cute. At 8 months old and eyes that seemingly filled her entire head, I couldn’t stop staring. But I had 799 more cats to go.
I didn’t see all of them but the variety of animals was something I last saw on my first trip to the Amazon. There was the Norwegian, these giant orange and white overfed cats with heads not big enough to fit their bodies. An owner petted one and her hand disappeared in the fur. There were the Sacro di Birmania, or Sacred Burmese, fluffy white kittens with black noses as if they’d been eating chocolate pudding.
I saw Siberians, very regal looking with wide bodies, strong heads and full coats in a variety of colors. There were the famed Russian Blues, with a blue-gray fur that makes them look like art work.
At one stand, an owner dressed her fat, 5-month-old Norwegian up in a black cape and hat and had it chase a twirler around to the delight of a rapidly growing cooing audience.
My favorites of the show, however, were the Maine Coons. They are one of the biggest cats in domesticity. They weigh up to 35 pounds and when sleeping with their paws over their faces look very much like furry throw pillows. The king of the coons was a huge 20-pound cat named, appropriately, Titanic. A week earlier, he had won a world championship at a show in Malmo, Sweden. His owner, who toted a purse emblazoned with “I am truly purrrrfect,” brought him to Rome to show off. On the show platform, the owner stretched him out and it was about four feet long. Needless to say, she didn’t put him in a cage. Instead, Titanic has his own stroller complete with windowed canopy.
Afterward, I saw stands where they sold a Philo Comb, a big comb shaped like a claw which two demonstrators used to scratch two cats’ tummies. I had to move away. I wanted to give the cats privacy as I thought they neared orgasm. At another stand, a company called D&C sold — and I’m not making this up — cat perfume. You can get them in Opium, Esotic, Chic, Boss or City. Actually, they didn’t smell all that bad. I wondered if a man put some on, would a woman in Rome pick him up?
Seriously, many people think pet owners devote too much time to animals. Every time I go to Rome’s Termini train station I see bums sleeping outside. I’m approached by at least a half dozen beggars a day. But all living things need assistance. Human beings have plenty, including shelters and government assistance. It’s reassuring that innocent creatures such as cats have people who treat them with the same care as they treat their children.
Some day, I will again, too. I can’t have a cat now. I travel too much. They can survive a weekend to Tuscany but not a month in India. To slow down and settle down on my couch and finally get another cat will be a tough decision. But if I do, I know exactly what I’ll name it.