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.[via]
"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.
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