June 12, 2009—Fighting off, and feeding on, rodents that would gnaw away at masterpieces, dozens of "working" cats patrol the labyrinthine storerooms of Russia's Hermitage museum.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP)
This magnificent building contains over three million works of art and has a history stretching back to Peter the Great.
The Hermitage has few rivals around the world when it comes to size and the quality of its collection.
But there's another side to this historic building - it is also home to a small army of cats.
Cats are everywhere - even in the artwork.
But if visitors take a closer look, they will see cats of a more furry kind.
Although no longer allowed to roam freely through the galleries, around 60 felines earn a living in the basement of the huge former Tsarist palace.
SOUNDBITE (Russian) Maria Khaltunen, Hermitage State Museum: "They (cats) work here. They execute, so-called, preventive activities so that rats and mice will stay away or are kept at a minimum. All the museum visitors can see them in the summer. Generally they walk on the square and on the embankment, and also they come out into the big yard. But these (cats) are only those who like to deal with people. Others who prefer living in their community stay in basement."
The priceless treasures of the museum are under the watchful eye of these cats.
These four-footed employees are always on guard against rats and mice that can damage the Hermitage collection.
They work in the labyrinths of the basement, hunting by day and night.
Cats have been guarding the museum for the last 200 years since the Tsarist period.
They first appeared during the reign of Peter the Great's daughter, Empress Elizabeth.
Fed up with hundreds of rodents running through the palace Elizabeth signed a decree ordering the best rat and mice-catching cats to be sent to Her Majesty's court.
The cats survived the Napoleonic wars and even the Russian Revolution.
The only time the cats disappeared from the Hermitage was during World War ll.
The Nazis laid siege to the city for 900 days and hundreds of thousands of residents died, as well as all the cats. According to museum lore, when the war finally ended two railway wagons of new cats arrived in Leningrad.
In the last few years the number of cats has risen dramatically, mainly because a lot of homeless animals have been brought in to the museum.
The museum has launched a campaign to find new homes for the additional guards.
But they insist that they would only give away their cats only to reliable people.
SOUNDBITE (Russian) Evgeny Abrikosov, St.Petersburg Resident: "My friends told me that there are cats here (in Hermitage). So, I decided to give my wife a present - to give her a cat. She just wanted to have one. And a cat here is not ordinary, this is a cat from the Hermitage. Just think of that - a Hermitage cat lives in your house. That's great!"
The cats are a part of the rich history of the Hermitage, but are not mentioned in most guide books.
Tourists can't book a special tour of the cats' labyrinths.
But if you keep an eye out they can be seen, especially when the sun comes out.