Can this be Venice? |

Can this be Venice?

Al Goldstein
Aspen, CO Colorado
The Grand Canal of Venice: Look carefully " do you see any cats? (Franny Goldstein)

Most cities of the world change radically over the years, for better or worse. But Venice, apart from its slow descent into the Adriatic, is as unchanged as the pyramids.

And as we glided down the Grand Canal, it did seem as if nothing had changed. There were all the decaying but still beautiful palazzos, the graceful black gondolas with their smiling Japanese passengers, the hordes of pigeons.

Yet after stowing our things at the hotel and striking out on the town, we sensed that something had indeed changed, something basic. And as we strolled along the canals ” wham! ” it hit us.

There were no cats.

Impossible, we thought. This can’t be Venice. On our last visit, a few years before, cats were everywhere. Most were a bit scruffy, but always with a “we own the place” swagger. To which, of course, they had a legal right.

Cats have been privileged residents of the city since the 14th century. Brought by the wagonload from Syria, they decimated the rats, helped stamp out the Black Death, chased the pigeons, brought joy to the little old ladies who pet and fed them. The grateful Doges declared the cats full-fledged citizens of Venice and threatened with death anyone caught mistreating them.

How could they all have vanished? Had they found a better deal elsewhere? Or had they just hunkered down somewhere in Venice, far from the madding crowd? Cats, too, need a bit of privacy.

We combed the back streets and bridges, squinted up at the loggias and windowsills, hovered near the seafood restaurants ” all in vain. Not a whisker in sight.

Solving the mystery of the missing cats then became our top priority. And we started with the people most likely to have the answer, the Venetian shopkeepers. Always happy to chat with possible customers, they offered some ready but wildly improbable answers:

“They were chased by the dogs.”

“Venice weather was too hot for them.”

“There were too many tourists.”

“There are still many cats ” I saw one the other day.”

Or most often, with an eloquent shrug, “Who knows?”

We decided that no one actually believed these stories, that there was some weird conspiracy of silence. Something terrible had happened to the cats and the Venetians had sworn never to talk about it, certainly not to tourists.

We continued our quest, moving on to the trattorias and restaurants. Our strategy was to compliment the waiter on the pasta and then, taking him by surprise, spring our query about the cats.

There we found at least a glimmer of probability. The consensus was that the Chinese Mafia had snared all the cats and sold them to the local Chinese restaurants or shipped them to China. “Never believe it,” advised one waiter, “when they tell you a dish is made with rabbit.”

Others insisted, vehemently, that the cats were gobbled up by the Senegalese sellers of fake Gucci handbags who haunt the tourist spots. Harassed by the police and mostly ignored by tourists, they had found sinister ways to plump up their meager diets. Or so the story goes.

Then finally, forced to admit that we were lousy detectives, we left Venice and headed home. There, with the help of Google, we quickly solved the mystery of the missing cats. Which, it turned out, wasn’t much of a mystery after all.

It seems that some years before, Dingo, an association for the protection of animals, rounded up all the stray cats and shipped them off to shelters on the neighboring islands and mainland, where they’ve lived happily ever after.

Sure, it was the decent thing to do. There were far too many strays and many were ill or undernourished. Venice winters are cold and wet, no place for the homeless.

But the Doges are probably grumbling in their graves. With the cats away, the rats will play. And the rats must never be allowed to regain the upper paw; nor, to mix a metaphor, must the pigeons. (On a warm day St. Mark’s Square reeks of pigeon droppings).

Still, there’s hope. For like the gondolas, palazzos and (some would insist) Harry’s Bar, cats are part of the city’s heart and soul. Venice can never be truly Venice without them. Which is why we’re so sure that somehow, some day, the cats will be back.