One night as we wandered around Rome, we came upon a group of ruins labeled by our map as Area Sacra. As we got closer to take a look, we discovered that the ruins were in the center of a large open space, and were set down below street level (which makes sense, as the ground was lower during Roman times). Basically it looked like a sunken courtyard or square, which was surrounded by a low fence.

We looked at the ruins for a few minutes, but we quickly started to notice that the whole area smelled like urine. We had seen people urinating in public throughout our trip, but the smell seemed too strong to be coming from a few indiscreet guys peeing on things. Also, it didn’t smell exactly like urine, just sort of like it.

As we wondered what was going on, we noticed a couple of cats down in the ruins. We watched them for a minute or two, and then noticed a few more. Pretty soon, we were seeing cats everywhere in the ruins.

And then we realized: the ruins didn’t smell like human urine, they smelled like cat urine. Basically, it smelled like a huge litter box.

Area Sacra: Home to a billion cats
We watched for a a while longer, and managed to count literally dozens of cats just in the corner of the ruins nearest us. Later, I would learn that the Area Sacra is a cat sanctuary and that Rome is generally famous for its felines. At the time, however, it was amazing just to see so many cats in one spot.

A few days later we were at the Pantheon. It was late and dark, but there were still a lot of people around. The actual building was closed, but we were walking around the outside looking at the architecture when I noticed something moving a few feet away. Then, I saw it again. By the third time I saw it, I realized the moving objects were rats, running around the ruins to the side of the Pantheon. I was freaked out. While I’ve seen rats on the streets of many cities before, I’d never seen so many. At any given glance I could look over and see a few scampering around. This seemed strange to me, given the notoriety (and shear numbers) of Rome’s cats.

Yet another day, while we were walking toward Trastevere for dinner, we looked down at the Tiber river and saw something swimming. We stopped to watch it for a second and I realized that it looked like an otter. (Laura argued that it was a huge, dog-sized rat that like to swim, but eventually I convinced her that that explanation didn’t make sense for a lot of reasons.) I don’t know for sure if it was an otter, because I don’t know if otter live in the Tiber, but its size, shape, color, and behavior were all very much otter-like.

We watched the otter-thing swim toward a cluster of plants on the bank. The Tiber, like many big rivers running through major European cities, is lined by tall stone walls and has a walkway down near the water’s edge. We were up above, but as the otter saw toward the plants, a guy who was reading a book saw it too. He got up to get a closer look. However, because he was so close to the water’s edge he didn’t have a good view, so we tried to yell directions from up above. It was kind of impulsive and based on his response I don’t think he spoke English, but it was nevertheless clear that we weren’t the only ones who were surprised to see an otter in the Tiber.

The Tiber River, near where we saw the otter. We were up above at the bridge level. The otter and guy where down below.

Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


  1. I think what you saw may have been a muskrat – not sure of spelling. I saw the same thing you did beside the Arno in Florence and I was told it was a muskrat. It was the size of a small dog and it waddled along the side of the river and then slipped into the water and swam away.

  2. I read this earlier and thought I left a comment. I think what you saw was a muskrat. I saw something the same in the river in Florence from the Ponte Vecchio and the person ear me told me it was a muskrat. It was about the size of a small dog. It waddled along the bank for a while then slid into the river.

  3. You did leave the comment. I just didn’t realize I still needed to approve it for it to show up. But that sounds right. I looked up a muskrat and it looked just like what we saw. Thanks!

  4. We saw two swimming together and they looked like otters. I thought maybe nutria, but our guide said they were otters. I googled otters in the tiber to see if anyone else has seen them. I know at one time they were there, but I’m not sure if there are any left.

  5. We have just come back from Rome, (Oct 12) and we saw the otter too, just near the Castello D’Angelo (in the river of course:-). Swam like an otter, too big to be a mink, not a dog. I got couple of snaps from a long way off, to us it could only have been an otter. I haven’t found anything else on the net about otters in Tiber, and I am sure there must be considerable joke potential along the lines of swimming in the Tiber is nice as its a little ‘otter.

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