Army of cats at the Hermitage Museum

David Ryckaert III, “Peasant Woman with a Cat” (early 1640s)
(Image from The State Hermitage Museum)

Well this was refreshing to watch this morning: CNN had a video on their website about the “kitty army” that protects the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia from mice. There is a part of me (the registrar/collections manager/”dead” conservator) that was moaning “Nooooo…..” in my head. I mean, the cats protect the museum from mice, but it may not be the best idea to have them in the basement because of other potential issues, like shedding or bugs. If there are vents from the basement to the museum, the hair/bugs could make their way up to the art that way.  However, it sounds like they are well-cared for and they are kept away from the art.

At the same time, I am a big cat person (my Freya has been on this blog before), and it makes me happy to see these cats– many of them strays– are being given a home. They have their own caretaker, for god’s sake! It kind of reminds me of my visit to the Boboli Gardens when I was living in Florence, though before I get into the story, I should note that Italy is notorious for its strays, since many pets are not spayed or neutered. I heard that pet owners would often abandon their pets when they did not feel like taking care of them anymore, leaving them to fend for themselves on the streets. Anyway, the Boboli Gardens, which are part of the Palazzo di Medici, are home to dozens of stray cats in Florence. I was told that there was a wealthy elderly woman who paid for the care of the cats in the Gardens, providing them with food, water, and medical care. I saw several cats myself when I was there one Saturday afternoon, all of whom were very sweet. There was one very affectionate cat whose eye looked like it had been injured, and I desperately hope that it received medical attention.

Ancient Egyptian bronze cat, 6th c. BCE (Image from

The story of the Hermitage cats, which I don’t believe I have heard before, got me to thinking about cats throughout the ages. It goes without saying that cats have played an important part in history, from being worshipped by the ancient Egyptians to being loved as companions to the modern day. Unfortunately, not all of that history has been positive. If you’re interested in learning more about cats in (art) history, click on the link under the picture) to the right. The cats of the Hermitage are part of an old tradition spanning back to the 18th century, when Empress Elizaveta “issued a “Decree on sending the cats to court'” (Source) that sought out cats to catch mice in the “service” of the government. Catherine the Great, who founded the Hermitage, later declared cats as the guardians of the galleries. The museum holds a festival, the Day of the Hermitage Cat, every Spring in honor of their felines.

My cat may not protect priceless pieces of art, but she does catch pesky moths when they make their way up to my 6th floor apartment, and she has been with me for over 4 wonderful years. She tends to be a little stand-offish a lot of the time, but when my Grandma died last April, Freya slept on my feet for two nights. I like to tell myself she could sense that I was upset, and she wanted to comfort me. She has always been the coolest cat, but her cool points just went up again after I read on that the Norse goddess Freya “kept cats around her, used cats to pull her wagon, and was worshipped with cat rituals.” I obviously did not name her– I got her from a friend when she was a kitten– and I decided to keep her name because I thought it was pretty. It’s also possible that she was named after a Final Fantasy character, but I like to tell myself she’s more mythologically rooted than that.

Freya! (And yes, that is a Harry Potter pillow behind her.)


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