Going astray in Italy on a tour for cat loversVery tempting.
By Mim Swartz
Universal Press Syndicate
Published March 25, 2007
Marco, a large brown tabby cat, stately sits on his haunches outside Venice's Ospedale Civile, welcoming all who come to visit loved ones at this hospital. Is that a smirk on his face, or do I imagine a smug smile when I notice a sign on the door showing a dog in a circle with the slash symbol through it?
Marco is the hospital's official greeter. "It gives people hope when they see him," says Gabriella Sanna, secretary of Dingo, a non-profit organization that helps care for some 500 stray cats in Venice and its islands.
Venice is but one Italian city where numerous gattare (cat ladies) take care of homeless felines and is the first stop on our 12-day "Cats and Culture" tour from Venice to Rome in October's perfect weather.
Venetians' affection for cats dates back centuries because of the feline affinity for rodents. Special Venetian cats even were bred in the 13th Century to go after rats carrying the black plague.
About 40 cats -- gatti, in Italian -- live at Venice's main hospital, which dates from the 15th Century. "The hospital has many mice, so the cats are welcome here," Sanna says.
We start to go inside and I hear a "meow." It's not Marco. I look around. "Oh, that's my camera," says Tammy Greer of Denver, who had just switched on her Pentax. "I bought a new digital camera for this trip, and that sound was one of the options. I thought it would be fun to set it on meow."
How weird is that? And how weird are we? Most of our friends think we are slightly nuts: 10 American women and one spouse, each shelling out $4,000 or more to travel thousands of miles to look at abandoned and stray cats in Italy. Some participants left behind husbands and boyfriends because this wasn't their kind of trip.
We are "ailurophiles," people who are fond of cats. We own almost 50 cats among us, including the 19 cats Donna Stanley has at her Hayward, Calif., home. Even our Italian tour guide, Silvana Sirotic, is a cat person. She has nine cats and has helped neuter 40 strays in the town outside Rome where she lives.
Halfway through the trip, Stanley makes a profound observation: "It's funny. We're 3,000 miles from home, but it seems like we're with family."
Holly Wilson Greene of San Leandro, Calif., is here because she wants to see more of Italy and says if cats are involved, "all the better."
"Besides, I thought maybe I could find a young 'broken' Italian cat, one I could adopt. Two years ago I brought a young blind cat to California from Madrid. I thought another European cat might understand my Spanish guy better than my other broken American cats," says Greene, who has worked in sports medicine and now is studying to become an animal massage therapist.
Greer -- the one with the meow camera -- had never been to Italy.
"Friends laughed and said there probably would be a bunch of crazy cat people on the tour," Greer says. "I wouldn't want to go on a normal tour, with couples and a big bus. I thought this would have a whole different aspect and that I would see things you normally wouldn't see."
Perhaps we are crazy cat people, some of us wearing cat socks, cat earrings and cat nightshirts and carrying luggage with cat I.D. tags. We bring toys and holistic antibiotics for the cats we visit. Of course, we have cat T-shirts: "Books. Cats. Life is good" and "If you can't talk to your cat about catnip, who will?"
And along the way, we buy even more cat stuff: ceramic wall plaques that facetiously warn, "Attenti al Gatto" ("Beware of the Cat"), and a large, can't-live-without tapestry handbag with the face of a cat complete with beaded whiskers.
True, most people don't go to Italy for cats. They go for food, wine, art history and churches. Not that we don't like food (or wine). We set out on a search for the best Italian ice cream and, by the third day, someone suggests the tour's name be changed to "Giatti, Gelato and Culture."
Plus, we do see lots of art and churches along the way -- in magical Venice, with its canals and gondolas; in Padua, home of Europe's second-oldest university; in Florence, the picturesque jewel of Tuscany; in medieval Arezzo, with its Etruscan ruins; in cliff-top Orvieto, reached by elevator, an Italian version of Greece's Santorini without the sea; and in Rome, where some of us catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI celebrating mass in St. Peter's Basilica for a cardinal who had died.
But back to cats. It's not that we can't find strays in our own cities. However, Italy's attitude toward cats is intriguing, with its 1991 law making it illegal to kill healthy stray cats and dogs. Feral and stray cats have the right to remain "free living" and they cannot be removed from the places they have chosen to live.
Elsewhere, sanctuaries have been set up to care for abandoned cats, sometimes dumped when their owners go on vacation, or when a competing baby is born into the family, or when the owners die or become too old to look after their pets.
So, whose idea is this crazy cat tour? Susan Wheeler of San Francisco organized the first tour in 2004 and plans another this October. Wheeler became involved with the respected Torre Argentina cat sanctuary when she lived in Rome in the 1990s and later formed Friends of Roman Cats in San Francisco, of which she is president.
The organization provides money to help spay and neuter homeless Italian cats and sends humane cat traps to Italy that are used to catch homeless cats for spay/neuter. The group also hopes to promote in the United States the no-kill policy and Italy's acceptance of cats.
Acceptance is what we find at the cat places we visit.
"It is wonderful to see people who love cats," says 82-year-old Adela Petrucci, who takes care of the dozen or so cats that live among the tombstones in the cemetery behind the Church of San Miniato a Monte in Florence. "Everyone loves dogs, but it takes a special person to love a cat."
While the cemetery cats roam freely, those in the sanctuaries are more restricted, although they have varying degrees of spaciousness. Some facilities are better than others, but each has caring volunteers, although not enough to give the cats the attention they demand. The most modern is Cinni Rifugio Per Gatti outside Arezzo, where Anglo-Italian vet Dr. Malcolm Holliday spent 14 years and about $500,000 of his own money building this sanctuary.
We get teary-eyed at places like the Dingo sanctuary on Venice's Lido island, where a black-and-white cat plays -- and wants to stay -- inside a carrying case that is being readied for another cat a couple is adopting, and at the Bagno a Ripoli sanctuary in the Tuscan countryside outside Florence, where the entrance sign reads, in Italian, "In memory of Titta and all other cats with no names and with no love."
We have laughs in the Boboli Gardens behind Pitti Palace in Florence, when we follow Tea Vianllo on her cat-feeding rounds, which she has done since 1985. She knows where each cat hides.
She lugs backpacks filled with various food for the 70 stray cats, sometimes cooking special dishes to cater to their whims. She pours them bottled water, of course. Our final cat sanctuary in Rome, Torre Argentina, gives preference to cats that are sick, old or disabled when accepting new animals or promoting adoptions.
Some 250 cats have found refuge from Rome's chaos and traffic below street level among the ruins of four temples, dating from the 4th to 1st Centuries B.C. This also is the site where it is believed Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C.
The shelter is in a cavelike building next to the ruins. It is here where Holly Greene finds Belfagor, a blind cat -- one of several -- and a potential companion for her "Spanish guy."
"I hope to go back to Rome this spring and get him," she says. "The tour turned out to be better than all my expectations. I would do it again, regardless of the cost."
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IF YOU GO
Friends of Roman Cats plans another "Cats and Culture" tour in October. The date and price are not yet set.
Our tour, last Oct. 5-17, cost $2,825 each, not including airfare, plus a $110-per-person tax-deductible donation to Friends of Roman Cats, which was distributed to the cat sanctuaries we visited. (The sanctuaries get little, if any, funding from government entities.) The hotels were three-star and very nice. Some meals are included; gratuities to the Italian guide, bus driver and local guides in various cities are not included.
Contact Susan Wheeler, president of Friends of Roman Cats, Box 12571, San Francisco, CA 94112; 415-334- 8036.
To see the 2006 itinerary, go to www.friendsofromancats .org.
Some of the cat organizations in Italy have Web sites:
Torre Argentina cat sanctuary in Rome: www.romancats .com.
Pyramid cat shelter in Rome: www.igattidellapiramide.it.
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The Chicago Tribune has a piece on an Italian tour for cat lovers: