The Cat’s Meow

Homeless strays get a cot and three squares for life thanks to Italy’s national “no kill” laws.

URBINO, Italy — At the entrance of the Oasi Felina Di Urbino, the cat shelter here, a stray tabby cautiously limped over to visitors. The cat stared up from scraggly grass with one pale green eye. Her empty left eye socket was overgrown by a patch of hair.

“This one was run over by a car,” said Enza Vaccarello, director  of the city’s cat shelter, speaking through an interpreter. “She doesn’t see; she is blind. She also has nervous problems. But she lives.”

In the United States, a stray in this condition would probably be euthanized if no one adopted it.  According to the Humane Society, approximately 3 to 4 million pets are killed yearly in shelters across the country.

But in Urbino, stray cats find a home for life at the shelter, as dictated by Italy’s “no kill” laws.

Healthy strays in Italy have laws that protect their rights. The laws vary by region.  The most recent one in the Marche was passed in 1988.

Stray cat

May people who visit the shelter are only interested in adopting kittens.

Part of the law includes birth rights:  A cat is has a right to live in the place  it was born, whether or not it has a human home. The law also dictates that every region of Italy must support a shelter.

These laws are especially relevant for the internationally known cats born near the Coliseum in Rome.  Those cats living near the tourist attraction have become almost iconic. Estimates put the number of stray cats in Rome at 200-300,000. But whereas Rome actively catches, spays and neuters its cats before releasing them back to the city, Urbino lacks such a program.

Instead, the town funds the Oasi Felina di Urbino.  After the cats are brought in, they are examined by a veterinarian, immunized, and sterilized. Most of the cats will spend the rest of their lives at the Oasi, Vaccarrello said.

The Oasi is a non-profit organization that currently houses 110 cats, Vaccarello said. Tarps attached to chain-link pens give the cats a cool place to escape from the blistering summer sun in the open shelter.

Some cats roll in the dirt in the 90-degree weather. Others crouch in boxes near the shelter’s entrance. Most of the kittens live in a small trailer that also holds the shelter’s medical supplies and food. The kittens cry loudly when visitors approach, pushing their pink noses up against the bars.

Vaccarello said that summer is the worst season for strays. Owners are more likely to abandon their pets during these hot months.  Summer is also a prime time for breeding.  Boxes of kittens dropped off at the shelter tend to increase in the summer.

“These are the months in which humans are worse than animals,” she said. “They abandon their own animals. Sometimes you find strays just where you put rubbish. People hear them mewing and they bring them here. Every year we get more.”

There is only enough money available for the shelter to employ a few dedicated individuals. One of these is Laura Ossola, who has been “taming cats” for the past 10 months.

Ossola said people’s misconception is that older cats cannot be turned into domestic pets.  People tend only to adopt kittens for this reason. But Ossola said domesticating adult strays is easy. She pointed to a long hair, Itty, yawning in the afternoon heat, and revealed the secret.

“I loved her, and she learned to love me, too,” she said. “Simple.”

However, Pat Shio, who has been feeding a colony of cats on the University of Urbino’s campus for the last 10 years, warned about becoming too attached to strays.

“I do not name them,” Shio said, leaning against the three-foot-square plywood house he made last year to protect the cats from dogs and weather.

“My veterinarian friends tell me not to get attached,” he said. “Cats die. They disappear. They get under cars.”

Shio was a student at the university when he started bringing the colony of cats food from the dining hall. Now he lives locally, returning to the campus three or four times a week to feed the colony.

Some of the cats are descendants from the original cats that Shio fed when he started this “hobby.” Others have wandered on to the campus and found a home among the brick dormitories built into the hill.

Yet Vaccarello says she cannot help becoming attached to “all her cats.”  Every time one of the cats at the shelter dies it is worse, she said.

“You take care of the cat, you do everything. And then the cat dies,” Vaccarello said, shaking her head. “It’s something very terrible for my heart. Always.”

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About Harmony Wright

I was able to experience authentic Italian culture while living in Urbino. I ate a lot of good food and met some really interesting people. The program also gave me an understanding of the difficulties of being a journalist in a foreign country and having assignments that made us interact with actual Italian people led me to become further immersed into the culture of the beautiful town of Urbino.