Today the Catholic tradition has celebrated Saint Francis’ day. It was also Animal’s day. This was no coincidence. Francis of Assisi is the Patron Saint and protector of animals, and Animal is indeed than the secular version of the religious holiday that celebrates his life and legacy.
Within the Western Christian tradition, Saint Francis was the first person to acknowledge in all living creatures, indeed in Nature itself God’s creation, not a gift from God to men, but creatures equal in dignity to the human kind, as is clear in one of his best known prayers, in which he called the Moon his sister and the Sun his brother. His contemplation of Nature was much more than a form of mysticism. As part of his call for a simpler life, he also preached kindness to animals and tried to teach his followers to overcome fear and prejudice and recognize animals as their companions rather than as their servants whom men are free to exploit. One of his most famous miracles was the domestication of a wild wolf, who had been attacking flocks and people around the town of Gubbio. Still, the message of Saint Francis went mostly unheard, and wolves remained in Europe one of the most vilified animals.
Although wolves kept being seen as a threat and chased to the edge of extinction, no animal has been so mistreated within the Catholic tradition as the cat. Cats were seen as evil and identified in the popular tradition with dark forces and even with the devil itself, with black cats as a preferential target for cruelty. This attitude persists even nowadays among many people, mostly due to prejudice and lack of education about how best to deal with these sensible creatures who do not bow to a master and love their freedom more than anything else. Sadly, as it is well-known, the South of Europe has a particularly negative record in what regards mistreatment of animals, in particularly dogs and cats.
But during my holiday in Dalmatia this Summer, I was able to observe how in the Island of Korcula cats receive the dignified treatment they deserve. The town of Korcula is full of cats, lingering around taking sun, indifferent to the tourists and displaying no sign of fear or distrust towards humans, but healthy and well-fed enough not to degrade themselves begging for food. This is the result of a old, well-preserved tradition going back to the Middle Ages, when Korcula was part of the Republic of Venice. The story of the cats of Korcula was told to me by an old man whom I randomly met while I was walking around the old town. He introduced me to his cats, whom readers can see on the photo. The yellow one is the son of the white cat with brown and black spots. There was also another one, a black one, from a previous litter. I met him yesterday, I told the old man, and showed him the photos I had taken of him. He told me then how the people of Korcula are grateful to the cats, whom the Venicians brought from the East to preserve the island from diseases propagated by rats. This is not a myth, he said, it is all written on the town’s historical records. For this reason every day the man feeds the town’s stray cats, as a sign of gratitude, as a duty he assumes. Through his love for the cats, it was also the memory of Korcula itself that is being expressed, and its historical identity preserved.
Korcula is known as an architectural pearl, plenty of beautiful medieval buildings and delicate masonry, and as the home town of Marco/Marko Polo, but it is the cats, and people like this man, who keep the character of Korcula and make it worth visiting and coming back to.