The Cats of Hermitage
The unsung heroes of the St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum are none other than a team - nay, army - of cats. The museum’s collection was started by Catherine the Great in 1764 and opened to the public in 1852. In order to keep art-munching pests at bay, a group of feral cats were brought in to guard the works. Roughly 70+ felines roam the building’s basement and corridors, protecting the estimated three million pieces of art from mice, rats and everything in-between.
At the time, cats were a relatively new addition to the city. They were brought to St Petersburg in 1745 and seen as an exotic wonder. Since their introduction to the museum, pest control services have improved and the cats are no longer the first and only defense against rats. But they have become an integral part of the Hermitage's identity, and arguably just as important as the art.
But visitors are lucky if they catch a glimpse of the cats, as they're often staked out in the belly of the building. Underneath the museum's rooms of art are kilometers of basement corridors lined with warm pipes. The cats can be found draped over the plumbing and lying in homemade beds.
A team of volunteers take care of the cats, feeding them, cleaning their bedding and tending to them when they’re sick. And, when possible, the cats are adopted into loving families and relieved of their museum duties. Despite their presence being somewhat ornamental, the team of felines have continued their patrols throughout COVID, keeping the corridors free from tiny intruders as the rest of the country stays in lockdown.
Image by Maria Teneva