Curators at St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum Repay Their Prized Mousers with Love and Shelter for Their Centuries of Invaluable Service
"We like them. And all our staff decided to keep up this tradition: to have the cats, and to like them."
-- Maria Khaltunen, press secretary for the Hermitage's cats
Vilified, abused, and slaughtered by bird lovers, wildlife proponents, and ailurophobes of all genres, cats have been the most persecuted animals throughout history. This is in spite of the fact that without their unmatched prowess for keeping the rodent population in check the human race may very well have succumbed to famine and disease a long time ago.
In particular, it is estimated that one-quarter of all Europeans fell victim to the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages because the rodent population went unchecked thanks to the Roman Catholic Church's war on cats. Man's gross mistreatment of these exquisite animals proves conclusively that he is not only the most ungrateful but stupidest creature that has ever tramped this planet. (See Cat Defender post of September 21, 2006 entitled "Aussies' Mass Extermination of Cats Opens the Door for Mice and Rabbits to Wreak Havoc on Macquarie.")
All in not lost, however, in that there is at least one place on this earth where cats are appreciated not only for their invaluable service to mankind but also for themselves and that is at the world renown Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Rounded up in Kazan in 1745 on the orders of Peter the Great's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, they were first installed at her court in Moscow and later at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. By the time Catherine the Great started acquiring the Hermitage's unparalleled art collection in 1764 there were already a substantial number of the felines working as mousers at the Winter Palace.
They survived Napoleon's invasion and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 but they perished like millions of Russians and Germans during the siege of St. Petersburg between 1941 and 1944. A new group of felines was recruited after the war and about fifty of their offspring still live at the Hermitage.
They are fed a daily diet of cereal and milk and are cared for by two full-time employees of the museum. (See photo above.) Their upkeep is financed through voluntary contributions from employees of the museum and a yearly art benefit which raises money for the museum's Cat Fund.
A veterinary unit is maintained in the basement where all newcomers are vaccinated and most of them are sterilized. A few of them are allowed to reproduce so as to ensure that the museum will always have resident felines.
Weather permitting, they are allowed to roam the gardens and courtyards and warning signs have been erected just in case they should venture out into traffic. They are allowed to wait out the long, cruel Russian winters indoors although they are excluded from the galleries.
Although pest control companies have taken over the principal responsibility for rodent control, the museum has nonetheless decided to retain the cats. Moreover, they even have their very own press secretary in the form on Maria Khaltunen. (See photo above.)
"We like them," is how she explained the museum's decision to keep the cats to the BBC on October 5th. (See "Hermitage Palace is Cat's Whiskers.") "All our staff decided to keep up this tradition: to have cats, and to like them."
The cats no doubt still contribute mightily to their upkeep by picking off a stray mouse or two now and again that the so-called professionals have overlooked. For instance, during his tenure as head mouser at 10 Downing Street Humphrey was regarded as being better at his metier than Rentokill. (See Cat Defender post of April 6, 2006 entitled "Humphrey, the Cat from 10 Downing Street Who Once 'Read' His Own Obituary, Passes Away at 18.")
Besides, cats are far more than mousers. They provide their caretakers with companionship, love, and amusement. They also help to relieve stress by teaching individuals how to relax.
Poet and singer Rod McKuen, who is well acquainted with the ability of cats to help relieve tension, once wrote:
"There has never been a cat
Who couldn't calm me down
By walking slowly
Past my chair."
Housed in six buildings including the Winter Place, the Hermitage is home to more than three million works of art. (See photo below of Winter Palace.) It also boasts the world's largest collection of paintings in spite of the fact that during Stalin's reign more than two-thousand priceless masterpieces were ordered to be sold.
The museum also contains its share of loot. In particular, it houses a substantial portion of ancient Troy's gold which the Russians stole from museums in Berlin in 1945. They also made off with seventy-four prized paintings by Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that they took from the private collections of German businessmen. Of course, the Germans also did their share of looting when they invaded Russia.
The museum, which operates miniature versions of itself in London, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas, is known to cinephiles from the 1995 James Bond movie Golden Eye and the 1977 screen adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The cats are the real attraction, however.
It is possible that the museum might have made it through the centuries without them but it would never have flourished with an uncontrolled rodent population damaging the art works and spreading disease. The curators therefore are to be saluted for having the bon sens to recognize that the cats belong at the Hermitage every bit as much as do the works of da Vinci, van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and other great artists.
Photos: BBC (cat eating and Khaltunen), and Nagyman of Wikipedia (Winter Palace).