ROME - Stray cats prowling the ruins of ancient Rome can rest easy on their marble pedestals -- a feline colony tucked away near the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered is no longer threatened with closure.
"These cats are not up for debate, they are part of the history of Rome," mayor Gianni Alemanno said on a visit on Tuesday to the refuge, which currently looks after around 250 cats, providing them with food and vaccinations.
"This is a praiseworthy, historical, wonderful enterprise. The feline colony must not be hounded out. Woe to those who lay a finger on the cats," he said.
City heritage officials have been threatening to close down the sanctuary, which sits in an tiny, cave-like structure at one end of the ancient site where Marcus Brutus and his fellow mutineers stabbed Caesar to death.
Claims that the enclosure where sick cats are nursed back to health is unsanitary and was built without proper planning permission have been fiercely denied by the dozens of volunteers who help keep the project running.
They say that they found the unused space 19 years ago and transformed it from a damp and dark cavern into a home for abandoned cats, many of whom have lost limbs or eyes in car accidents, or are sterilised and put up for adoption.
The site has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right, with visitors who drop by to denote money or take photographs of the felines who sun themselves on the remains of pillars once part of the city's imposing Senate.
Image: Doc Searls / via Flickr