The State Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg ‘hires’ cats to protect its artworks against rodents. The so-called ‘guard cats’ go unnoticed as they dwell in the attics and basements, away from the tourist eye. The museum administration has been ‘employing’ these highly skillful ‘guards’ ever since the museum was founded in 1764. Even though nowadays rats and mice can easily be exterminated using chemicals, the museum cannot do without cats who have become its living legend and mascot.
The first cats were introduced for ‘public service’ in the 18th century. Tsar Peter I was the first to provide shelter for a big cat he had brought from Holland at the then wooden Winter Palace. Later on, Empress Elizabeth ordered a batch of rat-catching cats from Kazan because she was scared of small rodents.
Cats acquired the status of palace guards during the reign of Catherine II. Under Catherine the Great, they were divided into chamber cats (the Russian Blue breed), and backyard cats who chased rats and mice guarding Her Majesty’s peace of mind.
The State Hermitage Museum started as a private collection of Empress Catherine II, who acquired 220 works by Dutch and Flemish artists through her agents in Berlin. At first, most of the paintings she had acquired were placed in the secluded parts of the Winter Palace which became known as the “hermitage”, or a “retreat”, in French.
Hermitage-employed cats survived the October Revolution and continued their service under the Soviet government. However, they didn’t survive the siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. After starving people ate all the cats, the city was infested by rats. But as soon as the blockade was over, two carriages with cats arrived in Leningrad (now St.Petersburg) from Russia’s central regions making the backbone of a new squadron of rat-eating cats.
Cat numbers rose to an unprecedented high in the second half of the 1960s. As cats invaded basements, museum rooms and corridors, the museum administration was ordered to get rid of them which they did. However, several years later, the ‘tailed guards’ were ordered back as the museum found it too hard to do without them in its struggle for the preservation of cultural values.
Since then, Hermitage cats have been taken good care of. Each so-called “hermit” carries a passport with a photo certifying that he is qualified to pursue the difficult task of protecting the museum basements against rodents. The cats are well looked after, fed properly, attended to if ill and respected for their hard work. Museum employees know all male and female cats by their names, and the name for each cat is picked carefully, to suit his or her character.
The team of tailed guards consists mainly of alley cats, and like in the imperial times, the cat community hinges on strict hierarchy. The cats fall into aristocrats, the middle caste, and the low caste. Each group operates within a certain designated part of the building. The cat staff cannot exceed 50-60 cats, not because they’ll be difficult to look after in terms of cat food. If the number of cats exceeds 60, they start cat fights and neglect their duties. For this reason, from time to time, the museum has to look for people who would adopt extra cats.
The museum’s basements have specially designated areas for storing cat food and attending to ailing cats. The roadway near the museum has road signs warning drivers about cats’ presence and urging them to be careful and slow down. Road accidents are the most frequent cause of deaths among Hermitage cats.
The Hermitage’s budget stipulates no funds for cats’ keeping. The cats live on donations from the public or museum workers. Hermitage Cat Day which is marked annually on March 28th is on the museum’s memorable date calendar. Prepared by the museum’s employees, it features a large number of informative exhibitions and exciting contests.