Tag Archives: cats

Russia’s museum cats

Lovely piece by Sally McGrane in The New Yorker: Winding beneath the magnificent halls of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, with its Da Vincis, diamonds, Greek statuary, Egyptian parchments, enormous number of paintings, mechanical peacock clock, and other treasures, there is a catacomb of cellars. It was into this windowless nether region—far below the Winter Palace’s expansive view of the waters of the Neva—that Maria Haltunen and I had cautiously descended. As I followed her through a narrow, imperfectly-lit corridor, full of large pipes and jutting wires, Haltunen gasped. “Look!” she said.
In the semi-darkness, a little being had appeared. He perched, a foot-tall shadow, on a water pipe.

“Oh, you are a fat one!” said Haltunen, jangling the chain of her I.D. pass like a talisman as she approached the pointy-eared creature. “How nice you are!”

The cat sat, perfectly still. Then he vanished.

“Some of them like to be around people,” said Haltunen, who has been the personal assistant to the museum’s director for the last eighteen years and, in addition to her regular duties, also serves as the museum’s semi-official Press Secretary to the Cats. She peered behind the pipes to see where the creature had gone, but found only a blanket, tucked against the wall, and a bowl. “Some of them prefer to be by themselves.”

Once a motley crew of frightened strays hiding, half-starving, in the palace’s basement, the Hermitage’s cats are now a well-loved, well-fed part of the museum’s family. Some seventy former street cats live at the Hermitage, where, thanks largely to Haltunen’s efforts, they have their very own underground cat infirmary and three full-time volunteers to care for them.

Underground, in their domain, there were signs of them—tiger-striped cat beds, bright pink and blue plastic bowls, places where the heating system’s pipes had been covered in soft, flowered material so that the cats could nest there. Now and then, a pair of bright eyes glanced out from a shaft; in a fenced-off corner, beneath blue and red water pipes, sprawled a little black kitten with white paws. As we passed, he jumped up, sprightly, and sidled out of the off-limits area.

“Our director is always saying they are the spirit of the place,” said Haltunen. “The museum’s genius loci.”

It wasn’t always this way. Fifteen years ago, Haltunen came upon the cats, sheltering in beleaguered prides in the museum’s heating system. Troubled by the animals’ plight, she and a colleague started feeding them, donning maintenance uniforms and lugging leftovers from the cantina to do the rounds of the extensive basements each day after work. “It was awful, after
working all day, to put on ugly clothes, to carry stinky beans through these dark basements,” said the diminutive Haltunen, who, with her large, bright eyes and button nose is not entirely un-catlike, herself. “But if you start, you can’t stop.”
Then, they decided to organize. They took up a collection—“A rouble for a cat”—and used it to buy food. Newspaper articles appeared. People became interested. The museum’s director gave them permission to use some little rooms in the basement to keep ill and elderly cats, and hooked up running water. “You know how it is,” said Haltunen, “You see a problem, and then you have to do something.”

In theory, the cats now form a fanged, clawed army with one goal: to catch and kill mice who might want to chew on the artworks. In practice, “they are fat and lazy,” said Haltunen, with evident pride. (A security guard once took a picture of one looking on, in astonishment, as a rat drank from his bowl of milk.) Still, according to Haltunen, when an exterminator came, they found fewer rat corpses afterwards than usual. She says that the mere presence of the cats, their bodies and smells, serves as a deterrent.

There have been cats in the palace since Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, issued a decree, in 1745, that the biggest cats, capable of catching mice, be sent immediately from Kazan to the court of her imperial majesty. Catherine the Great is thought to have favored Russian Blues as indoor palace cats; under the last Czar, the royal family’s pet cats, who were left behind in the palace, fared better than the dogs, who were taken along to Yekaterinburg with the family to their deaths. During the three-year siege of Leningrad, all of the animals in the city died—except for the rats, said to have been so numerous as to form a gray, moving mass in the streets. When the blockade was lifted, Haltunen said, as we continued our walk beneath the museum, Russians sent their cats to the city to help fight the vermin.

Stepping into the little cat hospital, a cozy, cluttered space that the oldest and sickest cats call home, Haltunen greeted Irina Popovetz, one of the volunteers who looks after the cats. Then she greeted Kusya (“Oh, this one has no tail!”), Jacqueline (“Look how fat we are!”), Sofiko (“You are very old!), and Assol, a tabby named for an impoverished literary heroine who waited at the seaside for a man sailing a ship with scarlet sails to come for her.

Taking a seat in the warm, pungent room and stroking Sofiko, she explained that, thanks to in part to donations from the German society Pro Animale and the pet-food company Purina, there is now an official Hermitage “cat account”—which always in the black. However, the cats are not just charity cases: last year marked the first official “Catfest,” in which all the entries for a contest for the best cat painting (there were nearly three hundred, mostly submitted by children) were exhibited for a day in the basement. For the second annual Catfest, held this spring, a scavenger hunt for children in the museum led to the museum’s only cat mummy, put on display that day only. Catfest was so popular that there is talk of extending it to two days next year. “We were astonished,” said Haltunen. “Crowds come to our dirty basement! It is really popular.”

The cats themselves, who are no longer afraid of people, have a positive effect on staff morale, she said. “People here become kinder, because they have the possibility to show this kindness,” said Haltunen, as we made our way back outside, where an orange cat was asleep in the sun beneath a classical statue. “It is very good when you have the possibility to show your best qualities.”

While cats are not allowed in the galleries or in the museum director’s wing, the people-loving felines have free rein in the former apartments of the ladies-in-waiting, where staff offices are now located. In the deputy of security’s office, “Little Hooligan,” a kitten abandoned in the countryside, where a security worker saved her from being used to train someone’s dog, was drinking milk under the Xerox machine. Frida, a black cat found in the garbage, posed on top of the bookshelf like a nineteenth-century Parisian lithograph, though—according to the photographic evidence that was immediately produced—she still likes to sleep in plastic bags. Niko, who looks like a mini-tigress, was fast asleep on a desk, with her tongue out (the desk’s putative owner assured us that this was no problem: grabbing hold of the sleeping cat’s long, bushy tail, the woman said that whenever she needed to sign anything, she just dips the tip in ink).

“People from Western countries, they say unfortunately they cannot permit cats in their offices,” said Haltunen, looking around, contentedly. “We are very lucky here.”

Photograph by Dmitry Lovetsky/AP.

The Cat Organ

“Henry Dagg performed his very own version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Prince Charles and had him in tears of laughter. He performed the famous tune on his organ, made out of fluffy toy cats at the event at Clarence House in London.” (via)

The cat that walked by himself

A Just So story about the cat that walked by himself, by Rudyard Kipling

EAR and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild–as wild as wild could be–and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.

Of course the Man was wild too. He was dreadfully wild. He didn’t even begin to be tame till he met the Woman, and she told him that she did not like living in his wild ways. She picked out a nice dry Cave, instead of a heap of wet leaves, to lie down in; and she strewed clean sand on the floor; and she lit a nice fire of wood at the back of the Cave; and she hung a dried wild-horse skin, tail-down, across the opening of the Cave; and she said, ‘Wipe you feet, dear, when you come in, and now we’ll keep house.’

That night, Best Beloved, they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones, and flavoured with wild garlic and wild pepper; and wild duck stuffed with wild rice and wild fenugreek and wild coriander; and marrow-bones of wild oxen; and wild cherries, and wild grenadillas. Then the Man went to sleep in front of the fire ever so happy; but the Woman sat up, combing her hair. She took the bone of the shoulder of mutton–the big fat blade-bone–and she looked at the wonderful marks on it, and she threw more wood on the fire, and she made a Magic. She made the First Singing Magic in the world.

Out in the Wet Wild Woods all the wild animals gathered together where they could see the light of the fire a long way off, and they wondered what it meant.

Then Wild Horse stamped with his wild foot and said, ‘O my Friends and O my Enemies, why have the Man and the Woman made that great light in that great Cave, and what harm will it do us?’

Wild Dog lifted up his wild nose and smelled the smell of roast mutton, and said, ‘I will go up and see and look, and say; for I think it is good. Cat, come with me.’

‘Nenni!’ said the Cat. ‘I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come.’

‘Then we can never be friends again,’ said Wild Dog, and he trotted off to the Cave. But when he had gone a little way the Cat said to himself, ‘All places are alike to me. Why should I not go too and see and look and come away at my own liking.’ So he slipped after Wild Dog softly, very softly, and hid himself where he could hear everything. (click here to read the rest of this lovely story or just enjoy the reading at the top)

Various hairstyles and Maru

Continuing in the vein of people filming their pets, I enjoyed いろいろな髪形とねこ。(trans: various hairstyles and Maru). Next stop? Brighton Pier.