Gabriella Albizzatti moved from the middle-class neighborhood of Calantano in Central Milano to the crime-infested streets of Rozzano in 1965. She was a new bride then, naпve and full of hope, confident the government subsidized apartment she shared with her husband was but a temporary stopover. His first promotion was coming soon, and with the extra money it would bring they could move closer to the city, far from the ghetto they found themselves in.
The promotion never came. They have lived here ever since.
Gabriella and her husband live on the 9th floor of a shabby, grey cement building, built after World War II to house the influx of Southern Italians who migrated north to find work. A mere 20 kilometers from downtown Milano, Rozzano is a world away from the glittering shopping arcades of Via della Spiga, where wealthy Italians and tourists sip cappuccinos amidst the Armani, Prada and Gucci boutiques.
The pathway leading to the front entrance is slick with black ice, and walking is treacherous. I continue forward past skeletons of squat bushes, cigarette butts scattered like yellow confetti in the patches of snow beneath them. I can feel the eyes of a dozen stray cats watching me from underneath the Fiat Pandas and Unos that line the streets, crouched low behind tires and other safe vantage points. They gather here every afternoon, waiting.
The elevator is broken, and when I reach her apartment on the top floor I am winded from climbing the steep stairs. Her husband Fernando, long since retired from his job as a draftsman opens the door, ushering me inside with a wide smile. His silver hair is thick and wild, and the dark circles under his eyes lend themselves to the image of a mad scientist.
The smell of cats is almost overwhelming as I slip off my shoes and look for a hook to hang my coat. A nine-year old Collie in need of a bath races forward, her nose in my crotch, tail thumping hard against the wall. Satisfied I’m not a threat she steps back, grinning, welcoming me into her home.
“Her name is Zara,” Fernando says, then points to a bundle of black fur curled in a box over the radiator. “And that’s Mini.”
Mini raises her head, her eyes opening a slit, then puts her head back down, unconcerned with who I am. I give her a pat and her tail flickers in annoyance, but she’s back asleep by the time I turn around.
I follow Fernando as he shuffles into the kitchen, calling out to Gabriella that the man from the magazine is here. She is busy preparing for her afternoon rounds, and I count dozens of cans of cat food open on the counter amongst the scattered pieces of dry kibble and empty bags. She’s mixing the food in a large plastic bowl, then scooping it out into individual containers. There must be 30 containers spread out over the counter top, maybe more.
She is wearing an old burgundy pullover and a brown and white checked skirt, her black stockings streaked with runs. As she turns to greet me I’m taken back by how tired she looks, as if the weight of the responsibility she carries with her each day has permanently etched itself into the lines around her eyes and mouth.
Her task completed she washes her hands and pats them dry on a dish towel, then sits across from me. I begin by asking her about the animals she shares her small apartment with.
“You already met Zara, of course, and Mini. Someone had abandoned her as a kitten, and I found her huddled in a box outside beside the garbage bin. She had a terrible nose infection.”
As if on cue I hear a resounding sneeze coming from the entryway and Gabriella rolls her eyes. “Of course that was almost twenty years ago, I think she does it now for the attention.”
“As for the other cats they go into hiding whenever someone new comes over,” she gestures towards the bedroom. “Their names are Chipollino, Orso, (bear in Italian) Lucy, Kitty, Lucifero and Viperino – the little viper. He bites.”
“So that’s … 1, 2, 3 … 7 cats and 1 dog?” I ask. “And two turtles who live in the bidet,” adds Fernando.
“It’s a bit crowded, but I’d never turn an animal away in need.” Gabriella explains. “Usually we only have stray cats, but other animals come along from time to time. We had Jacko the crow living with us until recently.” Her voice catches in her throat and she grips the dish towel, twisting it between thin fingers. “I wish…” But she trails off, not finishing her sentence.
“He had a broken wing,” Fernando interjects. “We set him up in a cage on the balcony so he could be outside. He’d sit there, chatting and squawking away to the other birds, making a racket. But even after his wing was fully mended he never tried to fly away. He lived with us for years.”
Gabriella spoke, her voice barely above a whisper, “I’ve had up to 11 cats in here at one time, and unless I can find them a new home then here they stay. I’m not turning them back out in the street once they’re used to being warm and loved.”
“Is there a limit to how many cats you’re prepared to take in?” I ask.
“No.” She says simply, and waits for my next question.
“Okay… so how did this start? When did you decide to devote your life to the stray cats of Rozzano?”
“Did I ever decide? I don’t think the decision was mine to make. But I understand your question. I suppose it started when I was a young girl. Ever since I can remember there were animals in my family; a big fluffy Persian cat named Gateau Tigre, a German Sheppard named Laila and yes, even turtles now that I think about it, and canaries on the balcony too.”
“This was very rare for Italy, especially so many years ago,” she continues. “My family was the only one I knew of growing up that had so many pets, and when I brought home friends from school they would laugh and tell me how odd we were. But I didn’t care.”
She is talking quickly now, remembering, and I sit and listen, not needing to prompt her with questions. “After Fernando and I married we moved to Rozzano, and found out soon after we couldn’t have children. With no babies coming it seemed only natural to fill the empty house with little ones, so we looked at getting a cat, a dog, anything to break the silence. But back then I assumed one got their pets from a pet store, and it didn’t enter my mind that the stray cats I saw each day needed my help. I was blind to them, until I heard the mews of a kitten coming from the alley.”
“I followed the sound and came across a skinny little calico girl, scared to death and shivering. As soon as I saw her I knew she would die without my help. I offered her some of the ham I had in my bag, and when she approached my hand I scooped her up and carried her inside. She barely struggled. It was like she knew I could save her.”
“We named her Pucci,” says Fernando, and strokes his beard.
Gabriella nods and continues her story. “The funny thing is, once I saved one, it’s like my heart broke open, and I was hit with the realization that I could make a difference. Suddenly, I understood that nobody else was going to do it.”
“And so I started bringing food out to all of them. At first I didn’t go far from the apartment, but they were everywhere, and so little by little my area expanded, until I was feeding all the cats in Rozzano every day, then twice a day – once at nine and again at three.”
I’m dumbfounded. Rozzano is at least 25 square kilometers. It took me over 15 minutes to get from the bus stop near the centre of town to their apartment.
“But that must take…”
“A long time. Yes.” She smiles.
“Isn’t that expensive?”
She does not want to answer my questions about finances, but under prompting, she estimates her cat food bill at over 500 Euros per month, or roughly $700. The rent in these apartments is approximately 300 Euros, and a retiree like Fernando would expect to collect a pension of about 1000 Euros per month. This leaves Gabriella and Fernando 200 Euros a month between the two of them.
But cat food, I learn, is only one of the expenses Gabriella and Fernando bear.
She continues speaking. “But of course feeding them is the easy part. It’s catching them that’s most difficult. Many are feral, but they all need to go to the vet eventually. To be fixed,” she adds, before I can ask.
“You fix them too? All of them?”
“What would be the point in feeding them if all they did was go out and have more kittens? It would be pointless. But I’m happy to say I don’t expect to see many kittens this spring. Of course one or two always slip through – there will always be kittens – but the cat population is under control, as long as I keep on top of it.”
“Do you pay for them all to be fixed as well?”
“But that’s… that’s impossible.”
It can’t be true this frail lady has single-handedly fed, captured and fixed the entire stray cat population in Rozzano. It would be difficult for a whole organization to accomplish, let alone one person – especially one living on a shared pension.
“Not impossible,” she shrugs. “Just difficult.” She glances at the clock again and pushes her chair back, letting me know our time is up.
I ask her if it’s okay if I accompany her, wanting to take pictures of her and the cats together, but she shakes her head no, gesturing to her clothes and hair. I persist, and finally Fernando interrupts.
“She is worried how she looks. This is Milano after all.”
“She looks fine,” I argue, “Bella.” I turned to her, “You look beautiful.”
“No,” she answers, “I have not been beautiful for many years.”
“But I promise I won’t take any close-ups of you. If I get a good shot of you together with the cats it will help readers better appreciate your situation. Some might even send a donation.”
But she remains unconvinced. The cats will be nervous, and may not come to her if they see me, she counters, and it is more important they get their meals than some vanity pictures for a magazine. Besides, she doesn’t believe people in other countries will help. They have other things to worry about, other charities they will feel are more important.
She gathers her bags of food and leaves me arguing with myself at the kitchen table. I turn to Fernando and he smiles, as if to say, ‘Why bother?’
I console myself by taking pictures of Viperino, Orso and one-eyed Lucifero, who lost his right eye to glaucoma. Of course Gabriella paid for the operation from her own pocket.
“She has asked city hall numerous times for funding, for help, but they continue to push her away,” explains Fernando as I slip on my coat. “They do not care about stray cats, they are so low on their priority list, they are not even on the priority list,” he laughs.
“Can I help?” I ask. “Can I give you some money?” I reach into my wallet, realizing that even if I gave them everything I carried it would barely make a dent in their monthly expenses.
“No,” he says. “We do not want your money, but we will gladly take a donation of cat food. But we are fine, Gabriella and I are, we do not need charity.”
“But I want-”
“Good bye Jim, it was nice meeting you. Come back with cat food if you feel you must help.”
As he opens the door Zara is up to see me off, her nails clacking on the tile. I pat her on the head and say goodbye to Mini, but she doesn’t look up. “Okay, I’ll be right back with some food.”
“Good,” he says, but I can tell by his voice he does not expect to see me again.
As I step outside into the cold air I see Gabriella in front of the neighboring building, a black cat eating ravenously from a container at her feet. I approach quietly, and as I get nearer I can hear she is speaking, reassuring him.
“Lovely boy, such a lovely, lovely boy,” she coos. “Take your time, go slowly.”
I raise my camera, she does not see me, and I am tempted to take the picture against her wishes. But something stops me.
I look at her threadbare clothes; her nylons streaked with holes, her scuffed winter boots, and feel ashamed of myself. I lower my camera and step back.
“Bella.” I say to myself, and mean it. She is beautiful. I turn to find a grocery store. I have cat food to buy.