The Hermitage palace - home is where the art is.

The Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, one-time capital of Russia is well known as home to some of the world's greatest art treasures. But not many people know that the museum is also home to some 50 cats, who follow the tradition of the Hemmingway cats in making themselves at home with great art and literature. The history of cats at the Hermitage goes back two hundred years to soon after the six buildings which make up the Hermitage palace were constructed in the 18th century. The first cats arrived following a request from when Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, Peter the Great's daughter, to keep down the rodent population in the palace. The town of Kazan in Tatarstan, apparently famous for the rat-catching skills of its cats, selected five of its five best rat hunters and sent them as a present. Later on, Catherine the Great kept up the feline population in Hermitage. As direct servants of the Imperial family, the cats received their own salary and special rations. The cats survived in the Hermitage palace through the Napoleonic wars though after the communists came to power, these former lackeys of imperialism lost their special status and were cared for by volunteers from the staff. None of the descendants of the original cats have survived, as the Hermitage cats, like much of the city's population, were killed during the epic siege of the city during the Second World War. The cats came back so strongly after the war that they almost became as much of a plague as the rodents they were meant to keep down. During the 1960s many were caught and found new homes in the country.

Although the cats are no longer required to kill mice and rats, they are still highly regarded by the museum staff. Although the cats are not allowed to the galleries, they regard other parts of the Hermitage as fair game, being frequently found in the library and staff offices or appearing perfectly at home among the statues in the Hermitage's gardens and courtyards. This is not to say that they do not wander into galleries on occasion to mingle with visitors to the museum. However, when spotted the cats are quickly shooed back into the warren of corridors which keeps the museum going behind the scenes. (One cat managed to get into the ventilation system and stayed there for two weeks until driven out by hunger. Because of the painting near the point where this cat made its home in the piping, the cat was known thereafter as Van Dyke.) By and large, the labyrinthine back corridors of the museum are more suited to the cats, and many of the steel doors on the premises have cat-sized holes in them to allow security and feline needs to co-exist.

The present feline residents of the Hermitage come largely from the homeless population of cats on St Petersburg's streets. The are looked after by the staff of the museum - since cats have been part of the Hermitage's life almost from the very beginning, the staff there consider it unthinkable that there should not be a feline presence on the premises. Indeed, there are now two full-time workers who take regular care of the cats. But feeding and keeping healthy some 50 - 70 cats is not cheap. The staff make voluntary contributions for food and medicine for the cats and also organize various fund-raising events to provide for the cats' special needs. Once a year in march the workers organise the Day of the March Cat, honouring the cats who keep the museum mouse-free. However, the cats do such a good job that these days they need their diet supplemented by fish, meat and porridge. A few years ago a Foundation of Friends of the Hermitage Cats was set up to help with the cats' upkeep.

Most of the cats living in Hermitage are neutered, but that does not mean that the numbers of the cats are not increasing. Knowing of the museum staff's weakness for cats, people who want to abandon their pets often do so in the vicinity of the museum. Some people bring the cats directly to the Hermitage when the owners die. To keep the numbers down the staff is constantly on the lookout for good homes for their charges. Those cats which remain are based in the cattery in one of the basements, though many like to spend the day roaming the courtyards or along the banks of the nearby river Neva. Others can be found sunning themselves on the wide window ledges, or commuting busily from one feeding point to another (there are several feeding points for the Hermitage cats to choose from).

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