Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Adopt a Venetian Cat!

British author Robin Saikia visits a small-but-beautiful cat sanctuary on the Venice Lido and adopts a new friend, Malamocchino (pictured here).
Malamocchino: old, unwanted, war-torn, deeply affectionate.
Adopted by Robin Saikia.
This August I visited the famous Dingo cat sanctuary on the Lido in Venice, the lively home of around 200 stray or unwanted cats from Venice and the islands of the lagoon. Founded in 1965, it is known as the gattile, pronounced gah-tee-lay, which means cattery in Italian. It is run by the charming Maria Grazia Macaluso whose work with cats is widely known throughout Italy and deserves wider recognition elsewhere. The gattile is an example of a small-but-beautiful animal charity, a model of efficiency and an ideal blueprint for anyone thinking of setting up something similar anywhere in the world. The Dingo set-up in Venice is part of the Anglo Italian Society for the Protection of Animals which has branches all over Italy. They keep a close eye on the welfare of all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to birds, fish, donkeys, livestock and circus animals.

Robin with Maria Grazia Macaluso of the gattile.
Photo by Marco Secchi
The gattile is housed in a small farmhouse at the end of a lane in Malamocco, a pretty fishing village on the Venice Lido. There are cat dormitories and a surgery in the house and a series of outdoor enclosures. The cats in and around Maria Grazia’s office in the farmhouse are clearly very happy with their lot and not in the least upset by visitors, whom they greet with affection, curiosity, indifference or disdain. Alice is a prim, stern-looking little schoolmistress of a cat who sits aloft on a bookcase. Eric is a vast, indolent, orange potentate who loves to be brushed and stroked. Further away in the compound, in the quarantine huts and convalescence wards, you will find unfortunates like Alberto, who lost his tail in a car accident on the Lido and the ancient but quarrelsome D├índolo, who is slowly but surely recovering from a terrible fight. Further afield, there is an isolation ward for cats suffering from serious illnesses like HIV and a maternity ward for those who are about to have kittens.

It was a blazing hot day in August when I visited and many of the cats were huddled contentedly in the shade beneath candy-striped golf umbrellas strategically planted throughout the enclosures. Every day, Venetians bring in unwanted, sick or stray cats. Every day, each newcomer is given a medical. When its needs have been assessed, it joins the colony. The gattile is also an active ‘adoption’ agency and Maria Grazia does her best to find homes for the cats, though it is not always easy. Inky is a sweet little black kitten, pretty much assured of a home once he has a clean bill of health. Malamocchino, however, is a rather forbidding old cat and is probably going to stay at Dingo for the rest of his life. Though he is enormously affectionate, he has a war-torn face that many would find quite off-putting, with only one eye, one snaggled and protruding tooth and decidedly ragged ears, the legacy of bitter territorial ambushes in the alleys and colonnades of his Venetian youth. We took to one another instantly and I have ‘adopted’ him at a distance for a small annual fee. He will appear regularly on my website and will keep readers updated about the latest happenings at the gattile.

Malamocchino, Eric, Alice and the others have a noble lineage, since cats have for centuries played a key part in Venetian life. In Gaetano Zompini’s 1789 book about Venetian street traders we learn about knife-sharpeners, candle-sellers and wig-makers, but there is another intriguing trade, that of the castragatti, the cat-neuterers. The cat population of Venice had always been a problem but Venetians, as animal lovers, were always ready to try and compromise with their feline friends: cats kill rats, rats spread plague, so neutering the toms would have seemed a good way of keeping a useful ally under control. But over time the feral population inevitably grew until it was beyond the power of the castragatti or anyone else to contain it. Visitors to Venice in recent decades will remember the old ladies who fed the strays every morning along the Giardini Ex Reale. It was quite a sight. Hundreds of cats would appear, from bushes, rooftops, from behind pillars, leaping out of gondolas, snarling at anyone who dared walk too near to the piles of fishy scraps dished out by the well-meaning cat ladies. The Dingo charity had helped with general aspects of health and welfare since its foundation in 1965, but by the 21st century the cat problem was completely out of control.

The Comune di Venezia, the city council, comprised with time-honoured Venetian diplomacy and ingenuity. The cats were exiled to the island of San Clemente, formerly the site of Venice’s lunatic asylum for women, where they settled in well, their nocturnal mews harmonising neatly, some said, with the ghostly screeches of long-dead inmates. All seemed well until 2005 when the island was sold and redeveloped as a luxury hotel, the San Clemente Palace. The cats were again dispossessed. Again they were loaded into cages and cat carriers and hoisted, mewing, hissing and spitting, onto a procession of barges. This time they were rehoused at Malamocco on the Lido.

As I said farewell to my new friends, Maria Grazia and I agreed that it seems appropriate that the Lido should once again be the refuge of exiles, for that was what it was at the very beginning of Venice’s history. The ten-mile-long sandbank now known as the Lido (from the Latin litus, meaning ‘shore’) was the site of the very first settlement of refugees from the Italian mainland, driven here first by Attila the Hun and later by Charlemagne. The cats, like the early Venetians, landed here on nothing but a wing and a prayer. Now, they are thriving and fighting back. Long may it last!

Robin Saikia is donating 3 euros for every signed copy of his book The Venice Lido sold from his website. There is a prize competition too. Click here for details. For more details of the Dingo project in Venice, see www.dingovenezia.it.