ST. PETERSBURG, Russia <br/> July 30, 2010 -- The standard line about the Hermitage Museum on the banks of St. Petersburg's Neva River is that you can spend days wandering its rooms and only see a small fraction of the millions of masterpieces under its roof. But glance out the window next to that ancient Roman statue and you may see something as much a fixture of the museum, but not nearly as celebrated: cats.
Dozens of cats roam the grounds of the Hermitage, living in the museum's gardens and labyrinthian basement, cared for by a designated staff. They've lived here for centuries, first brought in by the imperial family to rid the Winter Palace of rats, and for the last 10 years cared for by the office of the director of the Hermitage.
"We joke that if [our director] permits us to have 50 cats, so we [technically] have 50 cats. But really we have around 60 cats," says Maria Khaltunin, the director's assistant and head of the cat program.
Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Tsar Peter the First, first demanded cats in 1774 to keep the palace's rats and mice in check. Legend has it she sent a special transport to the city of Kazan to bring back these cats, supposedly especially good hunters.
The love of -- and need for -- cats got passed down from one generation of the imperial family to the next. During the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's former name) during World War II, all the cats died. They were brought back to the museum soon after the blockade ended to cull the vermin population that had exploded over three cat-free years.
Thanks to poison, the days of relying on cats as the museum's hunters are long gone. But the tradition of cats at the Hermitage is more structured and stronger than ever.
"Now we have people in charge, people who came here only 10 years ago when we started to organize this work," says Khaltunin. "There were just the cats, the common street cats, the common yard cats who were not so nice, so clean and so brave. In 10 years, they became more kind and more gentle."
The galleries - home to priceless works by Raphael, Monet and Renoir - are strictly off limits to the cats, and consequently not seen by most visitors. But otherwise the cats have the run of the place.
The Hermitage Provides Cat Doors for Its Felines
In the Old Hermitage Yard, a tabby darts behind a pile of columns. Another chews the grass in the Dog's Yard (where nary a dog is to be found). Under the statues of Shuvalov's Way, a large, grumpy fellow nestled behind a drainpipe hisses at this reporter for getting too close while nearby a small black and white cat guards a northern gate.
Many of the green service entrances feature smaller cat doors so they can go between the gardens and basement at will. The space under the Hermitage is best known to house vaults that contain many times the number of artifacts on display on the floors above. But tucked away in one corner of the basement is cat headquarters.
It's a cramped, windowless, low-ceilinged room with the distinct smell of cats. Dressed in a yellow apron and white hat, Irina Popovets fiddles with a syringe trying to give an injection to a small white cat with matted fur. He squirms and complains loudly, running off when the ordeal is over.
Up hop two identical black cats with white chests, the male begins to harass the female.
"What are you doing? What is this?" Popovets scolds. "My little girl. He's being a pain to all the cats."
Popovets is one of three women in charge of the cats, keeping them fed and healthy. She clearly adores her charges, calling out to each one she comes across, lovingly petting them when they let her.
In the back are a brother and sister pair, Lupa and Nura, just 7 months old. They're being nutured back to health after they were abandoned two weeks ago.
"[Lupa] was in a very bad state before, but look at him now, we've put him back on his feet," says Popovets. "You could say we brought him back to life."
Just outside the cattery, Popovets runs into Tisha who has lived at the museum for eight years. The plump gray and white male is not in the mood for a petting, swiping at Popovets. She laughs off his attack, letting him gnaw on her arm.
There's another cat at every turn of the basement's green and white halls. Likely because plastic food and water bowls are stationed throughout the belly of the museum. The warm pipes that line the tunnels are particularly popular during St. Petersburg's fiercely cold winters.
If You Adopt a Hermitage Cat, It Comes With a Certificate
Most of the cats don't stay as long as Tisha, the turnover is about 10 to 15 every year. Word of the program has spread and cats are abandoned at the museum because people know they'll be taken in. Khaltunin welcomes requests to adopt Hermitage cats. They come complete with a Hermitage certificate, adding a certain pedigree usually not associated with stray cats.
"We have a certain number of cats, a certain amount of money," says Khaltunin. "That's why we're trying to give [them away] to kind people."
Khaltunin keeps careful track of the program's finances, pulling out a large ledger detailing donations over the years. Most museum employees donate as well as a number of charities.
Thanks to the popularity of the program, Khaltunin says a loose tradition has become a permanent fixture at the museum and is in no danger of disappearing.
"Cats are a part of our life," says Khaltunin. "They amuse people, and make a nice atmosphere for us."