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Italy Journal Dog Days of Summer Turn Deadly for Rome's Alley Cats

A cat sits near the Roman temples of Torre Argentina, where a cat sanctuary has been set up by some of the city's dedicated gattari. (Reuters)

By Daniel WilliamsWashington Post Foreign ServiceMonday, August 19, 2002; Page A09
The alarm is out in Prenestina, a rambling, anonymous southern Rome neighborhood, for a serial killer who has dispatched at least six victims with a kick to the ribs or strychnine. The most recent victim, named Lorenzo, died of fractured ribs with nary a farewell meow.
Someone is killing the cats of Prenestina, news that would be upsetting in any town, but that is positively traumatic in Rome. This is a city where even stray cats get names and loving care from gattari, residents who feed and stroke strays in plazas and doorways. Some historians say the Roman affection for cats dates from the craze for things Egyptian during the Roman Empire's conquest of the Nile Valley, where royalty kept cats. Others believe that Romans grew eternally grateful to cats in the Middle Ages, believing their appetite for rats kept the bubonic plague from the city.
In any case, the police in Prenestina have promised action. "There's a single hand behind this terrible chain of violence. His luck is running out," said police inspector Antonio Biscozzi. "There's already a suspect."
The cat killings have helped feed Rome's insatiable summer appetite for animal news. The fate of Rome's fauna is always a hot topic in the summer, when journalistic fare from the capital shrivels with the retreat of politicians, reporters and just about everyone else to the beach. Drama almost always afflicts the cats, birds and other animals left behind -- even mosquitoes, deprived as they are of their main source of food, the Romans.
A few years ago, for instance, the city was scandalized by the plight of dogs temporarily abandoned by owners who were too cheap to find them a kennel. Then there were the aggressive sea gulls, attracted from the coast by Rome's garbage. Apparently enraged by the reduced pickings caused by the seasonal closure of restaurants, they chose to relieve unwary tourists of their potato chips.
This year, it's the cats. Mara Belibani, a psychology student, informed the police about the Prenestina murders. Some of the victims were among the brood she calls with a whistle each morning and feeds. For a Roman, greater love knows no equal to Belibani's sacrifice: She told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that she has given up her vacation this year to tend to her cats.
Hers is a freelance operation, but other gattari get municipal subsidies, including free sterilizations (for the cats). The best-known official cat colony thrives in Piazza Argentina, a sunken archaeological garden in central Rome that has become a veritable feline city-within-a-city. About 500 cats live among the marble ruins, doted on by an association of cat lovers. A newer home, for 200 strays, has taken root at a cemetery near the Ostiense train station. It receives donations from English cat lovers.
As if rubbing out cats wasn't a sufficiently disturbing problem, a sudden fish kill stunk up the Roman coast the other day. Hundreds of mullets, bass and eels turned up dead at the mouth of the Tiber. Evidently, they were poisoned by a massive runoff of agricultural chemicals that poured from the countryside through the city to the coast during heavy rains early this month. "When even eels die, it's a bad sign," said marine biologist Claudio Cutolo. "The Tiber is definitely poisoned."
Nonetheless, where the biologist saw ecological disaster, a vacationing mechanic saw seafood risotto. He began netting the dead fish, considering them somehow just the victims of "heavy raindrops," according to published reports.
Then there are the mosquitoes. The newspaper La Stampa reported on a Roman scientist who is trying to develop a vegetarian strain of tiger mosquito, one of the most voracious of Italy's hungry variety. The scientist claims that mosquitoes can live without zapping animals and humans for blood. He said a domestic breed of mosquito lived for years in Rome's catacombs without carnivorous contact. He's working on genetic modification.
It's not clear whether this is good news or bad for the northern Italian town of Berra, which has just issued invitations to its first Mosquito Festival. The town sits near marshy Po River terrain and so the mosquito is "one of the most characteristic elements of our area," according to Mauro Tumiati, president of Berra's Cultural Association. As a lure to tourists, besides offering lectures on the sex life of insects and the diseases they can spread, Berra has gotten hold of a Japanese pumpkin flower that eats mosquitoes. Cancel those reservations for the Venice Biennale. The buzz this year is in Berra.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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