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Cats Who Guard Hermitage Museum In St Petersburg

There have been cats in the Hermitage ever since the days of the Elizabeth Petrovna," says Maria Haltunen, Assistant to the Museum Director, and PR to the famous felines. "Except for the 900-day period of the Siege of Leningrad, when the people were starving. So of course, the cats did not survive that".

Muffla, a chubby tabby, blinks and looks away.

St Petersburg: the cats of the Hermitage

We have come from the Director's offices, groaning with books and hung with Gobelin tapestries, through a small door into a concrete labyrinth of corridors, store rooms, service areas, courtyards and tunnels that connect the Winter Palace with the four additional buildings that make up the vast Hermitage Museum.

This is the domain of the cats and of the ladies tasked with looking after them; an area not normally seen by the general public - who are currently forming an orderly queue at the museum entrance on Palace Square - except on the annual Day of Hermitage Cats, a moveable feast established in 2009. A few weeks ago, the day was marked with the opening of a small exhibit of works by Theophile-Alexandre Steilen, a painter noted for his love of the animals, and a cat drawing competition for children, among other things.


Muffla is the first cat we come across, supine in her basket on the stairs, basking in a ray of sunshine. "Some cats are more sociable than others" says Maria, picking up Muffla and cooing into her ear. "Muffla likes to be around people, so she chooses to live where they come out to have a cigarette." Muffla purrs like a football rattle.

The tradition of Cats at Court dates back to a 1745 decree of Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg. In a bid to rid her palace of rats, she issued the order "to find in Kazan...the best and biggest cats capable of catching mice, and send them to... the Court of her Imperial Majesty, along with someone to look after and feed them, and send them by cart and with sufficient food immediately". The cats had to be male, and "treated".


This breed of Kazan cat may no longer exist, but we know that Catherine the Great favoured Russian Blues inside the palace, while putting common moggies to work in the basement. "My paintings" she once famously wrote to the Diderot in France in an attempt to entice the philosopher to visit her, "are enjoyed only by myself and the mice".

Today, 74 cats, of both (neutered) sexes, roam the underbelly of the museum, and three volunteers, under the jurisdiction of security chief Tatiana Danilova, spend six hours a day underground, tending to their needs. There are kitchens for preparing their food ("they all have different preferences"), and even a small hospital.

"The cats are on the Hermitage account, and earn money through donations" says Maria. "Pro Animale, an animal charity, give us €400 a month for food and medicine. Royal Canin sponsor them too, and we are given bags of litter - although some cats prefer to use outside facilities. But museum staff also make donations for their upkeep. They are very popular".


As we wander through the corridors, Muffla follows at a trot. We find a cat graveyard in one courtyard, cats sunbathing alongside vast marble bath-tubs in another. Other felines were returning home from a stroll along the Neva Embankment Everywhere, cat holes are cut into heavy metal doors, so they can roam at will. Baskets and bedding are found on hot water pipes, in the former bomb shelter, and in Ms Danilova's office, where a large Siberian-Norwegian Forest cross lies sprawled across her desk.


She pulls out a large ledger, in which every resident cat is listed by name, along with its chosen living quarters, working area, dietary preferences, etc. "Before we had an organised system of care" says Maria, "We used to have to put on special clothes, and spend a couple of hours after work every day, trying to track them down and feed them. It was quite a job."

There have been stories of cats serenading the public through the air vents. Occasionally, to the delight of visitors, a cat will stray beyond its remit and escape into the galleries. "And then" says Maria, "we have to catch them".

With so much pampering, I ask, do the cats bother to work for their keep? "They don't need to chase mice any more" says Maria. "Their presence is a deterrent in itself". She sneezes, three times.

"Excuse me", she sniffs. "I am allergic to cats". 


Hermitage cats are regulary tended by veterinarians.


sources 1, 2, 3

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