By Matthew and Tracy DeJong
Ethical travel has become more prevalent as travellers process the ways that they are often straining the location they are visiting, rather than contributing to it. As post-colonial attitudes shape our understanding of the world, visitors are often sensitized to what they can offer and learn from a culture, rather than simply being consumers. Those beliefs turn to asking not what I can get from my adventure, but what can I give during my short time there.
Of course, there are many travel outlets that specialize in conscious travel, taking into account the local people and culture, history and sensitivities. Many choose to bypass such outlets and conduct their own research regarding ways we can give back to the local residents. However, such contributions need not always be people-oriented.
While visiting Rome with our children, we were of course enthralled with the sites we’d seen pictures of our entire lives. The Colosseum in all its majesty. The Pantheon that dates back to Marcus Agrippa. The wonder of Trevi Fountain. Yet, the place that we returned to three times with our own family, including out last day in Italy, was none other than the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.
Found in the heart of Rome among ruins—believed to be the infamous place where Caesar met his end—this home for unwanted felines houses about 150 stray cats. Some missing eyes, some missing legs, and some just neglected by their owners, these cats first found a home among the excavation that started in 1929. As the barriers in this historical location prevented humans from entering and vandalizing the site, cats enjoyed safety and independence, as well as the food that was thrown into the area by passing residents and tourists. Lounging on partial victory temples, pillars, and portico steps, the cats are cared for by “cat ladies” who have seen the cat population swell to almost 250.
Though feeling a little jealous at first that the felines were allowed to freely wander the ruins, we were pleasantly surprised to climb down the steps to the underground shelter and office and be among the cats for as long as we liked. Proud of their mission, the staff allowed us to pet and play, while drawing our attention to calendars, t-shirts and other merchandise whose proceeds help fund the local pet population.
You can continue your relationship with the sanctuary long after you return home by setting up monthly donations to help with the costs of feeding, vaccinating and the much-needed veterinary assistance. And thinking that such a place might be an anomaly in such a tourist-driven city, it is not the only one in Rome. There lies another cat sanctuary at the Protestant Cemetery near the Pyramid of Cestius. So, if you want to give back to the culture you are visiting in a way that will engage your children, young and not so young, consider visiting local shelters, sanctuaries, and those who are helping the most vulnerable animals in the region.
Upon returning home from somewhere in Europe, South America or Asia, people may ask you: where was the most important part of your journey to such an ancient, historical culture?
They might be a little surprised, but nonetheless warmly interested, if you describe exactly where you were “straying”.