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Image: Matilda the cat sits leashed behind the front desk at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.
Jonathan D. Woods  /  msnbc.com
Matilda the cat sits leashed behind the front desk at the Algonquin Hotel in New York on Wednesday, November 23, 2011. Due to guidelines from the New York City Department of Health, Matilda III, who was once free to roam the hotel, is now confined to the reaches of her leash.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 11/23/2011 11:53:43 AM ET 2011-11-23T16:53:43

For nearly 80 years, a cat has roamed free in the lobby of New York City’s famed Algonquin hotel, but now, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has made finding the friendly feline into a bit of a scavenger hunt.

The Algonquin has confined Matilda III, the latest in a line of lobby cats dating back to 1932, primarily to the arrival area and behind the reception desk thanks to a pre-emptive move to prevent crossing the DOH.

Restaurants have been getting tagged with hefty fine and reduced health ratings for minor violations, so the Algonquin made the move to avoid running afoul of the New York City Health Code. In a statement to TODAY.com, a rep for the DOH said: "According to the New York City Health Code, live animals are not allowed in food service establishments (except for edible fish, shellfish, or crustacean) unless a patron needs a service dog."

Animal Tracks: Algonquin Hotel's "Directfurr of Guest Relations" is living life on a shorter leash

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“We certainly respect the Department of Health and their mission to protect the public,’’ Algonquin general manager Gary Budge told TODAY.com. “They make it clear that animals are not to be in food-service areas, so rather than be in a situation that could’ve been a conflict, we have restricted (Matilda) to the arrival area, the reception desk, and her favorite haunt, which has always been the coat room.’’

Story: Glamour puss: New cat takes office at famed NYC hotel

Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of cats roaming the Algonquin's lobby. In 1932, then-owner Frank Case welcomed a stray searching for food and shelter and a tradition was born. Guests have been asking about the absence of Matilda III, who gets regular mail and makes headlines any time her collar has been stolen. She even has a section on the hotel’s website titled “The Algonquin Cat.’’

“People miss seeing Matilda moving around the lobby,’’ Budge said. “They miss that part of the connection they’ve previously enjoyed. But this is the right thing to do. As we know, everything changes.’’

Video: The Algonquin Hotel's new resident cat (on this page)

In nearly 80 years, Budge said neither Matilda nor her predecessors have ever attacked a guest or been abused by visitors. Hotel staff are often asked by guests to point out Matilda’s various hiding spots.

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The Algonquin received 20 violation points in a preliminary inspection on Nov. 10, worth a B Grade if they are not fixed by the time of the DOH’s follow-up visit, according to a report in The New York Post, which originally reported the story.

None of those violations involved the cat. The Algonquin will undergo a four-month, $15 million renovation starting in January.

While Matilda may be harder for guests to spot, she is always within sight of an Algonquin employee to make sure that the DOH doesn’t come calling with fines and ratings downgrades.

“She is closer to a watchable eye from the team that works here, and they happen to like that,’’ Budge said.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: The Algonquin Hotel's new resident cat

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