Reuters News reported this week that the federal government and the local authorities in charge of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Florida, are battling over the future status of dozens of cats that roam the grounds of the writer’s former home. Hemingway wrote all or part of many of his most famous works, such as "A Farewell to Arms," at the house, which has been a museum since 1961, a National Historic Landmark since 1968, and is also one of the Keys’ major tourist attractions.
It’s also up to its @%# in cats.
The cats, which actually are heavily promoted as a tourist attraction by the museum, are mostly descendants of Snowball, a cat given to Hemingway as a gift by a mysterious sea captain. At least, that’s the story the museum tells. The Reuters report refers to a book claiming that they are actually descended from a neighbor’s pet cat Hemingway shot in the head. He was allegedly trying to put it out of its misery after it had been hit by a car; the cat is said to have lost an eye but survived. All in all, a slightly less romantic story than the official tale, and it would certainly be a little disappointing to think that Ernest Hemingway, avid sportsman, hunter, safari participant, and author of such manly works as "For Whom the Bell Tolls," was not successful in any sort of battle with the neighbor’s cat. So let’s go with the sea captain tale. In fact, perhaps this was the very same man on whom Hemingway modeled the hero of "The Old Man and the Sea"! You can’t prove it wasn’t.
Anyway, however he got the cat, it is likely that many of the current inhabitants are descended from it, because it is known to have had six toes on each foot and about half of the 60 cats there today are also polydactyl. (Polydactyls? Polydactylic? Multi-toed.) So, the former home of Nobel-Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway is infested with a bunch of multi-toed mutant cats. You may be able to see some of them if you tune in to the Hemingway Home Cat Cam. If so, look to see if any of them look abused, because the SPCA has filed a complaint claiming that they are not treated well, and that some of them have been injured or killed on or near the property. An inspection report stated that "[I]n 2005 alone, there were 12 occasions when cats left the property; in two of these cases, Hemingway cats were killed by cars." Well, cats do leave property from time to time, and they don’t always cross with the light, but I’m not sure that shows they’re being abused. To tell you the truth, it doesn’t sound like it was all that safe for them when Papa was still there.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that the museum is subject to federal regulations, says the house needs a federal Animal Welfare License to keep the cats, as if it was running a circus or zoo. It is sending an expert from the University of Florida there on July 23 to "observe the cats’ mental state and physical condition." (I’m not sure how you test a cat’s "mental state," but I’m not the expert.) Officials that run the property say that the cats are treated well and point out that they have spent nearly $200,000 to improve cat conditions on the property. "It’s kind of sad," said one, "that a government agency would be spending taxpayers’ money on this. We’re against caging them because they’re not used to it." The local government says the feds should butt out, and a federal judge has ordered the parties to "work out their differences."
The museum’s website has (besides the Cat Cam) some fun facts about the animals, which for the most part appear to be named after writers or actors. Some have even written their own messages to you, such as "Emily Dickinson":
A healthy cat with dilute calico fur, I am named for a poetess who lived during the 1800’s. Coincidentally she wrote about 1800 poems during her lifetime. She was recluse but I am not. I spend my time sprawled near the guest house so people can see me and admire my extra toes.
Sounds to me like she is doing fine.