While it is difficult to track the exact numbers, informal sources argue that Rome hosts more than 4000 feral cat colonies, making feral and stray cats a predominant non-human presence in the city. Ranging from 2 to 200 individuals, colonies are often situated in places that are not easily or continuously accessible by humans, such as low-traffic streets, parks, fenced archaeological sites, and monumental cemeteries, but also in places that are marginal and neglected. As shown by archaeological evidence, feral cats in the city can be traced back to the Roman era, when they were already known to occupy public spaces, roaming outside villas and living in the surrounding rural areas. Due their iconic presence, Rome’s free-roaming cats were officially declared ‘bio-cultural heritage’ in the early 2000s, gaining relevance and legitimisation in the tourist-scape of the ‘eternal city’.

In this short piece, I show how feral and stray cats enable affective, political, socio-economic and ecological multispecies relations in the urban context. Considered simultaneously as domestic and feral animals, these animals occupy a liminal space in both a taxonomical and a legal sense. On the one hand, their untamed behaviour and out-of-control proliferation can constitute a potential public health issue. On the other hand, their classification as a domestic species grants them the affection and protection reserved for pets. The national law enacted in 1991 regarding feral cat colonies in Italy, described by animal welfare activists as an important achievement, represents a special case of urban fauna management at a national and local level. In fact, while some guidelines on animal protection apply to the national territory, local administrations such as the municipality of Rome have implemented these measures further: the law bestows a unique legal status on feral and stray cats that protects them from removal or relocation, highlighting the municipality’s responsibility for their care and acknowledging their legitimacy in the territory where they settle. 

Despite displaying a variety of behaviours, from entirely feral and unapproachable to friendly and easily adoptable, the general population and, in particular, cat lovers believe that stray cats inhabiting Roman colonies deserve care and protection just like private house cats. In fact, while in many Western and Anglo-Saxon legislations, stray cats are protected under property laws, Italian legislation gives feral cats the right to settle in a territory and protects their lives and welfare in their own right. Under this legal arrangement, feral cats are fed primarily by cat lovers and volunteers, commonly known as gattare or ‘cat ladies,’ who play a crucial role in implementing animal welfare policies. Acting as ‘referees’ on a voluntary basis, ‘cat ladies’ provide regular feeding and monitoring for one or more colonies, ensuring that the cats have access to food and basic care. Moreover, they help implement trap-neuter-and-return policies, for which they can claim help and reimbursement from local veterinarians or public health institutions. 

The collaborative efforts between municipalities and cat welfare volunteers reflect a unique social arrangement, in which the management of feral and stray cat populations is maintained by institutionalising the spontaneous action of care and affection that cat lovers perform. Municipalities encourage cat ladies to register a cat colony at the local public health institution under their name to receive institutional and financial support. Once they are officially recognised as legal gatekeepers, cat ladies gain special rights to access the cats’ territories; they can create non-profit associations to administrate donations and public funds; and they can manage a network of volunteers.

One example of this arrangement is the cat colony in the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome, erected in the proximity of the Roman Era Pyramid of Gaius Cestius. Hosting the graves of British poets such as John Keats and Percy Shelley and political figures such as Antonio Gramsci and Antonio Labriola, the cemetery is also home to some 20 free-roaming cats. Feral cats partake in the touristic landscape of this location under the name of ‘The Cats of the Pyramid’ (I Gatti della Piramide). Marzia, the official referee and ‘cat lady’, runs the colony as a charity, organising fund-raising events, selling cat-themed merchandise, and managing a small number of trusted volunteers who take turns feeding the cats daily. She also has access to a gated portion of the cemetery where she stores pet food and keeps cats who need special care.

Persichetta, a member of the Pyramid cat colony, being fed. Photo by Giovanna Capponi

 Through the help of these legal frameworks, the presence of feral cats creates affective urban geographies that intersect with the need for biopolitical management of the stray population and with touristic infrastructures. However, these dynamics also foster ideas of ownership and gatekeeping, in which associations and other organised groups can claim complete authority and competence over the modalities of care and management of non-human urban life.

Just like human denizens, some feral cats are embedded in socio-economic circuits that grant them access to care and attention, while others inhabit peripheral spaces of abandonment and neglect. This can be seen clearly in the case of a colony located near a former Roma camp, whose inhabitants were evicted in 2020 after a devastating fire. Here, feral cats share their territory with marginalized humans, mostly migrants living in precarious self-built sheds – humans and non-humans share a condition of invisibility and absence of state welfare. Three cat ladies take care of the colony and regularly drive to the location to feed and monitor the cats at their own expense. During their visits, the marginalized migrants inhabiting the camp help feed the cats and sometimes receive small amounts of money from the cat ladies in exchange for their services. While the focus of the cat ladies is feeding the cats rather than the humans, their presence in these neglected spaces allows those precarious humans and non-humans to pursue their needs and acquire visibility.

The comparison between the cats of the touristic Non-Catholic Cemetery and the former Roma camp reveals emergent forms of intersecting marginality. Human and non-human life share central and peripheral territories, with access to resources differing based on location. Mirroring human peripheral conditions, feral cats occupying spaces of neglect often have limited access to food and care compared to those living in the central and touristic areas, configuring a case of common inequality across species boundaries. However, the cats’ position also creates a situation of potential collaboration with the humans who occupy these spaces of interspecies marginality. The presence of cats and cat ladies creates an opportunity for precarious human lives to obtain help and care.

As feral cats are cared for and assisted through this collaborative effort, cat-feeding practices also involve other non-human species that inhabit the same ecological niche. Indeed, by making a daily amount of pet food available in the urban space, volunteers directly or indirectly also feed seagulls, pigeons, crows, insects, and rodents. Within the urban politics of care and management, with their ambivalent pet-like status, feral cats facilitate the provision of food to other species rather than predating on them, allowing birds and rodents to thrive, often outside of human control. The presence and specific behaviour of these other, co-habiting species, in turn, shapes the activities of the cat ladies.

An example of how these strategies are put into action can be found in a colony located on the premises of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, close to the main train station of the city. Piazza Vittorio, as it is known by local residents, is a square garden that hosts, behind a protective gate, Roman archaeological ruins (the Marius Trophy) and a monument taken from a 7th-century villa called ‘Magic Portal’ based on a number of alchemical inscriptions. Accordingly, the cats inhabiting this space are known as ‘I Gatti della Porta Magica’ (The Cats of the Magic Portal). The colony is composed of around 30 cats. While all of the cats are sterilised, their number fluctuates due to several cases of abandonment throughout the year.

The current referee, Gianna, is a 70-year-old lady who is helped by a network of self-organised volunteers who take turns buying pet food and feeding the cats. The activity is regulated through a very active instant messaging group, where volunteers post daily reports on cats’ state of health, organise bulk purchases of pet food, and share pictures and news on the location. Many of the conversations in the group revolve around what feeding strategies to implement in order to prevent their food from being stolen by other species who inhabit the same ecological niche. Indeed, the location is also home to urban birds, such as pigeons and gulls, and, during the summer, to insects, including oriental hornets.

These cat lovers’ feeding strategies are based on seasonality and other forms of temporality. They ensure that the Cats of the Magic Portal are fed twice a day, once in the morning, right before sunrise, and once in the evening, right after sunset. These are the times of the day when fewer humans and non-humans populate the square garden. This timing reflects the fact that the presence of diurnal birds such as pigeons and gulls makes it very hard to feed cats during the day time in this particular location. The square garden’s main gate closes earlier during the winter, while the location remains accessible for longer during the summer. Cats need to be fed in cooler spots of the square when the heat is more intense and in sheltered spots when it is raining. As such strategies demonstrate, the volunteers’ feeding activities are planned by observing different shifting criteria: the cats’ movements, the weather, solar times, and the movements and habits of other species that may take advantage of pet food. Whenever a competitor species becomes too difficult to manage, cat volunteers resort to other strategies, such as separating a plate with food especially for gulls or hornets, so as to keep them away from the cats.

In other cases, cat lovers intentionally feed other species, as can be seen in the example of the cat colony of Villa De Sanctis, a park in the neighbourhood of Torpignattara, in the east side of Rome. The colony is composed of a small group of around five cats living en plein air, but the cat volunteers received permission to build a small enclosed shelter inside the park, where they keep cats who need special treatment or suffer from health issues. Luciana, the colony’s main referee, is an active member of the local community who also volunteers at the local food bank. Every day, she comes to feed the cats in the colony and in the shelter, mixing their food with the appropriate treatments and medicines. Since running water is not available in the shelter, cat volunteers bring tanks filled at the closest fountain to replenish the cats’ water bowls with clean drinking water. Rather than throwing away dirty water remains, they pour this in a bucket to soak leftover stale bread that Luciana brings from the food bank. When the stale bread is soft, cat volunteers crumble it with their hands and toss it to the crows, pigeons, and parakeets living in the park, directly outside of the shelter. Here, the recycled food that is shared with birds is composed of a variety of human and non-human leftovers: stale bread from the food bank, and water from the bowls of feral cats. This multispecies metabolic process exemplifies how cat ladies implement biopolitics of care and affection, based on moral hierarchies of marginality and exclusion.

In these affective geographies, feral and stray cats reconfigure neglected or hidden urban territories creating opportunities for other humans and non-human lives to access resources. Their presence compels local administrators, citizens and animal lovers to create new infrastructures, politics and practices of care, acknowledging feral cats’ ambiguous status as both companion animals and public health threat. The different strategies of feeding and caring take into account different species’ needs and temporalities, showing how non-human urban life shapes directly human perception and management of urban spaces.

Giovanna Capponi is trained as a social anthropologist with a focus on environmental anthropology, human-animal studies, material culture and religion. She has carried out research on topics ranging from ritual sacrificial practices to human-wildlife conflicts and interspecies commensality in Europe and Brazil. She is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Rio de Janeiro State University.