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It's well documented that St Petersburg's Hermitage in Russia is home to a huge collection of pieces, including some of the world's greatest artistic treasures; but less well known is that an army of cats has been guarding those treasures from rodent predators since 1745. In that year the Empress Elizaveta (Elizabeth) Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great and Empress of All Russia from 1741 until her death in 1761, signed a decree ordering that cats were to be found in the city of Kazan and brought to her court in Moscow 'better cats, the largest ones, able to catch mice, and accompanied by a person who will look after their health'.
By the time of the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-96) there was a substantial number of Winter Palace cats. They survived the storming of the building by the Bolsheviks in 1917, but the siege of Leningrad (as it was then called) in 1941-44, during the Second World War, meant that their descendants succumbed to disease, starvation or the needs of the famished human population. After three 'catless' years, they were reintroduced as soon as possible after the war; museum legend has it that a special train travelled nationwide to recruit suitable felines for service.
Nowadays the cats live in the Hermitage rather than the Winter Palace; they number around 50 and are considered by the staff to be museum employees. Officially the director allows 50, but in practice cats come and go, so there may be up to 60. There is a turnover of 10 or 15 animals each year; city residents are encouraged to rehome some of them in the spring of 2010 there was a 'Want to Go Home' campaign for that purpose but they, and those who die, soon have their places taken by fresh stray or abandoned cats. New arrivals are vaccinated and most are neutered to prevent undue proliferation, keeping just enough breeding animals to maintain the population. Each cat has a 'passport' with its photograph. Those that leave to be rehomed receive a special Hermitage certificate, which gives them a certain distinction!
The feline colony receives no official income, but the human employees contribute each month towards upkeep and health expenses. Each year also there is 'Tomcat Day', regarded as the cats' holiday; it's a kind of open day where visitors can take part in cat-related games and competitions and can view artwork depicting cats, painted by children and students as well as by professional artists. Proceeds from the day go to the Museum Cat Fund.
None of the animals is allowed in the galleries; however, many of the green service doors in the six Hermitage buildings have small cat doors in them, so the residents can come and go as they please between the gardens where in summer they are to found strolling or lounging among the priceless exhibits and the basement, where there is the 'cat headquarters'. This is where food is prepared and their health is looked after, with a room devoted to looking after sick animals.
There aren't enough rodents now to provide all their food requirements, so they are fed fish, liver or meat and a special mixture of cereals and milk prepared by the kitchen. Food and water bowls are to be found in many places. A number of volunteers help to care for the cats, but there are also three women who have full-time jobs looking after them; they are devoted to the animals and know all their names. 'Cats are a part of our life,' says one. 'They amuse people and make a nice atmosphere for us.' The basement also provides the heated quarters where the cats spend much of their time in winter to avoid the bitter Russian weather outside.
There's an interesting account of the body of museum volunteers, including a photo of some of them standing by a notice proclaiming 'Caution! Cats!' and including a cat, of course! Reader Tom Nelson kindly sent us a photo of that sign (above left). The image top left of a volunteer holding a cat outside the Hermitage in winter is by Sergei Grachev of the St Petersburg Times.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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