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The Federal Case of Hemingway’s Key West Cats

In 2010, I was lucky enough to visit Key West, Florida. A wonderful escape from Canadian winter. While there, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours touring the grounds and house of Ernest Hemingway’s Key West Home, where Hemingway lived from 1931 until 1939 with his second wife (of four!), Pauline.

We were certainly enchanted by many aspects of Hemingway Home – the beautiful pool with its potted plants and whimsical decorative elephants; the cat-fountain made from a urinal sourced from a bar Hemingway frequented; seeing Hemingway’s writing workshop; the house itself including countless lovely chandeliers and sweet green shutters, and much, much more.

But our favorite part was the cats. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cats, many claimed to be descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl (six-toed! Think cats with mittens) kitties roam the grounds, seemingly carefree and happy. There are kitty hideaway houses nestled here, there and everywhere on the estate, many with cats inside. But it was also common to find a cat on a railing, a cat snoozing in a patch of sunny hibiscus, or a cat on the stairs. I had to laugh at Hemingway’s bedroom, whose bed and its beautiful chenille bedspread are off-limits to visitors, but which boasted two sleeping cats. I liked very much the casual approach to the furry felines. They are clearly well fed, well-cared for having their needs met, but otherwise they are largely left to their own devices. Which is where someone took umbrage, according to an article on csmonitor.com:

At some point several years ago, a museum visitor expressed concern about the cats’ care. The visitor took that concern all the way to the US Department of Agriculture and, literally, made a federal case out of it.

Soon USDA inspectors showed up in Key West. They said that if the museum wanted to display cats it needed an exhibitor’s license as required under the federal Animal Welfare Act. (That’s the same law that regulates circuses, zoos, and traveling dog and pony shows.)

Federal officials advised the museum that it also needed to take action to: Confine the cats in individual cages each night, or construct a higher fence around the property, or install an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or hire a night watchman to keep an eye on the cats.

The museum was ordered to tag each cat for identification, and add additional elevated resting surfaces within the cat’s enclosures.

USDA officials also advised that the museum would face fines for noncompliance.

The case has been appealed and re-appealed and gone back and forth, but as it stands today, it does look as though the people in charge of Hemingway Home will have to make some substantial changes to their approach to the cats there. I very much hope that the story has a happy ending, a mutually satisfactory solution is reached, and the cats can continue going about their cat business while charming visitors to no end.

The whole thing does seem perversely opposite the spirit of Key West, though, where aimless wandering seems encouraged by people and animals alike, and the spirit of be-yourself-and-do-your-thing is alive and well. There are chickens and roosters wandering around the streets haphazardly, and people pay them little mind. There are people sitting in doorways, on street corners, drinking a beer, smoking a cigar, playing an instrument, just enjoying a good sit. It seems ridiculous to the extreme to get one’s knickers in a twist about regulating the cats.

Two of the cats at Ernest Hemingway House. The white one is named Spencer Tracy.

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