After weeks of speculation, the cat is out of the bag — Pope Benedict XVI loves felines. It turns out that the pope is the proud owner of Chico, a black-and-white domestic short hair that lives at the pope’s home in the Bavarian town of Tübingen, Germany.
Agnes Heindl, long-time housekeeper to the pope’s brother, Father Georg Ratzinger, who lives in nearby Regensburg, told MSNBC.com that Chico is currently being looked after by the caretaker of the pope’s private residence.
“There’s also a multi-colored tabby cat that hangs around a lot of the time and keeps Chico company,” says Heindl.
Ratzinger says that while growing up, the pope and his family always had cats. But now, he says, the only cats in his own home are a "collection of porcelain plates with painted cats on them, mementos from different European vacations with my brother.”
The fact that the pope is a cat person has been met with a positive response around the world. His e-mail address at the Vatican (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been swamped with messages from animal lovers asking for blessings and his prayers, according to Vatican officials.
In Rome, it is still a hot topic of conversation over cappuccino in the city’s many sidewalk cafes.
But, says Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, who was in Rome for the pope’s inauguration, “The street talk that the pope loves cats is incorrect. The pope adores cats.”
Why not 'Pope Francis'?
In fact, some Catholics are asking why the pope didn't choose Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, as his papal name.
According to local news reports, the pope used to walk the streets of Borgo Pio, his former Roman neighborhood just east of the Vatican, where neighbors likened him to Dr. Dolittle with a Pied Piper charm. Stray cats would run to him when they saw him coming and he used to prepare food for them daily on special plates.
The pope’s publicly announced fondness for cats has once again put Rome's felines in the spotlight. Currently one of the hottest selling tourist mementos in the city is a little cardinal hat for cats that goes for $15 in stores such as Barbiconi, which specializes in clergy robes and accessories. Mahony’s cats both have cardinal hats, gifts given to him during his recent trip to Rome.
Mahony, who owns two silver tabbies named Raphael and Gabriel, believes that cats are perfect pets for clergymen “because they are wonderful companions. There is almost a spirituality about them. Their presence is very soothing."
Previous popes also have kept pets. Pope Leo XII had a dog and a cat. Pope Pius XII kept caged birds in the papal apartment and a goldfish named Gretchen. Pope Paul VI is said to have once dressed his cat in a feline version of cardinal robes.
But currently, Pope Benedict XVI must abide by the rule against pets in Vatican apartments "although one cardinal has a dog and everyone in Rome knows it," says Mahony.
So why is Pope Benedict XVI barred from having cats at the Apostolic Palace? Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the official spokesman for The Holy See press office in the Vatican, refused to comment. His secretary explained, “That is a private issue. The Holy See doesn’t divulge anything about the pope’s private life.” However, a little coaxing did reveal that his secretary was thrilled the Pope was a cat lover, as are many in Italy.
A 'special place' in the hearts of Italians
“The Italians have a lot of history relating to cats dating back to the 13th century when diseased rats plagued the cities killing thousands of people,” says Mahony. “Desperate citizens brought in cats to kill off the diseased rodents. Since then, they have always had a very special place in the hearts of the Italians.”
According to Dr. Enrico Moriconi, president of the newly formed AVDA, or Veterinari per i Diritti degli Animali (Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights), Italy is a world leader in animal rights law. Since 1991 it has been illegal to kill healthy dogs and cats living in shelters.
Turin, the prosperous industrial city in northern Italy that will play host to the 2006 Winter Olympics, has passed strict animal protection laws, dating back to the time of Guisseppe Garibaldi, the political activist who founded the first animal protection society in Italy, the Ente Nazionale Protezione Animali (Society for the Protection and Care of Animals), in 1871.
Here, dog owners are fined up to $650 if they don’t walk their pets at least three times a day. People on bicycles can take dogs for walks as long as they don’t over-exert their pets. It’s against the law to dye animal fur or to perform “any form of mutilation” for aesthetic motives like tail docking, and there are huge fines for any form of cruelty to animals. The 20-page rulebook also prohibits goldfish, rabbits and chicks from being given away as prizes at amusement parks. Pet shops must have non-slip surfaces on all bird cages and there are specific size requirements for animal cages.
But Moriconi points out that these groundbreaking animal rights laws aren’t always enforced. According to Deborah D’Alessandro, public relations officer for Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary and a tireless volunteer, animal lovers throughout Italy are now looking to Pope Benedict XVI for changes that will relieve the plight of the country's cats and dogs and have a far-reaching effect on curbing animal cruelty worldwide. “We have written to His Holiness asking him for a private audience and inviting him to visit the sanctuary. We are hoping for a positive reply.”
Because of their job keeping rodents at bay, cats are given the status of “free citizens” in Italy. In terms of Italian law, this means that government-run shelters are responsible for spaying and neutering cats (and dogs), but then allow them to go free to fend for themselves.
Situated amid the ruins of four Roman temples where Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar in 44 A.D., Torre Argentina has helped raise awareness about the plight of abandoned cats throughout Italy and has campaigned successfully for government-run animal shelters in Rome. The sanctuary also cares for 40 colonies of feral cats in the city.
Torre Argentina, along with other sanctuaries like Dingo in Venice, would not exist without the permanent support of international animal-welfare groups like the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals and the Friends of Roman Cats, which provide both funds and humane traps.
With a new pope in the Vatican, Italian tourist authorities are expecting a bumper year and D’Alessandro is keeping her fingers crossed that this means an increase in visitors to Torre Argentina and other cat sanctuaries around Italy.
If you are a cat lover and also want to visit Italy, Friends of Roman Cats are planning their second "Cats and Culture Tour" this October. The trip focuses on visiting both historical sights and cat sanctuaries. According to Susan Wheeler, one of the tour’s coordinators, “it’s a great way for people who love Italy and cats to indulge themselves.”
Sandy Robins is a freelance writer and columnist based in Irvine Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.