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Et tu Fluffy? Rome weighs evicting cat shelter.

Tucked into a corner of the Largo Argentina temple square in Rome, the cat sanctuary provides food and sterilization to hundreds of homeless cats. But critics say it besmirches the ruins.

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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.

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“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.

“Without us here the cats would be begging for food on the sidewalks and getting run over by trams and buses on the streets – it would be a disaster,” says Mrs. Dequel. “We are financially self-sufficient – we get no money at all from Rome council. And in some tourist guides we are among Rome’s top 10 attractions. We will fight this attempt to close us down.”

“From what the authorities are saying, you would think we were occupying the Parthenon,” says Silvia Viviani, co-founder of the refuge. “I’m a Roman and I’m very proud of our ancient heritage, but we are not damaging anything here.”

Carla Camilli, a volunteer, says many cats and kittens were found after being dumped in the archaeological site. “We take in old, blind, and disabled cats – we treat them all the same.”

The refuge attracts tens of thousands of tourists a year, who descend the metal steps leading down from street level to stroke the tabbies, gingers, and smoky gray cats.

Visitors are encouraged to adopt the felines by paying for their upkeep or to take them away and give them a proper home.

“It’s a fantastic place,” says Cristina Lazzaroni, who was visiting Rome from Milan. “I cannot see that it is damaging the ruins. Romans have always lived with cats. These people are doing good work.”

The cat sanctuary gained a valuable ally last Friday. Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of the city, said he was in favor of keeping it open, putting himself at odds with cultural heritage officials.

“I’m on the cats’ side,” he said in a Tweet. “And so is my own cat, Certosino.”


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