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Cats among the ruins

Felines find a sanctuary set in the heart of ancient Roman temples.

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Helpers who live in Rome handle the administration, conduct free guided tours of the ruins, and care for sick or injured cats. Other volunteers come from all over the world, some for a few days, some for weeks. They help with whatever needs doing around the no-kill facility and assist visitors.

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New cats arrive at the sanctuary almost daily. Each is given a name, then photographed, registered, medically treated if needed, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered. If it has a right demeanor, it's put up for adoption.

Additionally, the sanctuary supports 40 other smaller cat colonies in Rome with food and medical needs.

But this main colony may have to move. "We are considered squatters," explains Ms. Dequel, as she prepares a shelter for a sick male cat just brought in. She hangs a plate with the cat's name, Zanche, on the cage. Then she drapes a thick cloth over the top because the cave turns cold and damp at night. "The city has plans to excavate the temple," she says, "and we're in the way."

A visitor drops by. Miesa Myrick, a flight attendant, hands Dequel an envelope.

A year ago, Ms. Myrick was on a layover in Rome. Not knowing anything about the sanctuary, she walked by Torre Argentina. "I saw a little tiger kitty playing on the stairs of a ruin," she says. "It had only one eye."

She adopted the kitten, Durer, and flew him back to her home in Maryland. Wanting to do more, she hosted a toga party. Guests came dressed in Roman garb and were shown videos and photographs of the rescued cats. The envelope she gave Dequel contains their donations.

I think that Nelson would be pleased so many people care. He, too, was an abandoned cat.

"It all happened 13 years ago," says Deborah D'Alessandro, author of the book "Nelson the One-Eyed King." "A big white cat arrived, its eye dislodged, shot by a kid with a BB gun." His imposing size and gentleness earned him a name derived from Lord Nelson, the famous English admiral.

Soon, as he perched on the Roman wall, his furry mane fluffed over his large body, he attracted the locals. Tourists, too, paused to pay homage. "People would come, calling out his name," Ms. D'Alessandro says, "with gifts of gourmet cat foods."

Nelson reigned for five years, but then became ill. A German family adopted him, so that he lived his last eight months surrounded by love.

Forgotten among the ruins, a white marble slab marks the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated. In time, this obscure marker may well be lost to memory. However, having been touched by the kind-hearted people who carry on in Nelson's feline kingdom, most visitors to Torre Argentina leave impressed by an experience they'll long remember.