The felines keep the collections safe by getting rid of any undesirable “guests.”
Taking into account that only a minimum of the whole collection is on permanent display, preserving and storing these treasures is probably the main mission of this institution. In fact, the collections were seriously threatened in the early 18th century when a plague of mice infested the basements of the Winter Palace, a former residence of the Russian tsars that is now one of the buildings of the museum. Mice destroyed the imperial kitchen, and Elizabeth of Russia – who was empress then — brought in cats to patrol the palace.
As kittens succeeded kittens, the empress decided to keep the cats permanently, to keep vermin at bay. They’ve been there ever since.
The Hermitage cats were not well treated during the Soviet era, especially during the famine that followed World War II, and for a time they deserted their habitat. Felines were reintroduced to the museum in the mid-1950s, as rats had taken advantage of the room to prosper. The Hermitage cats are now under a special protection program begun in the 1990s, and the museum administration constantly recruits stray cats to join their ranks, sponsoring meals and vet care. Visitors, in turn, can adopt a Hermitage cats themselves, should they want to take home a kitten well-versed in the history of art.
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