The Feds Can Tell Ernest Hemingway's Cats What To Do; Here's Why

Dec 10, 2012
Originally published on December 11, 2012 11:06 am

Cats were everywhere. Fifty or so of them. In the house. On the lawn. Sunning themselves on the wall surrounding the property.

Most were six-toed — making them polydactyls. That's different. The cats you usually see have five toes on each paw in the front. Four on each in the back.

They were descendants of Snowball, a present from a ship's captain. A gift to writer Ernest Hemingway. He — Hemingway, that is — died in 1961.

About 10 years ago, a visitor to the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West thought something was wrong. Were the cats being treated well? The museum said yes. The visitor, who had doubts, filed a complaint with the feds. It's a complaint that's gone to the courts.

Yes, Hemingway's cats are a federal case.

Now, as Christian Science Monitor correspondent Warren Richey tells NPR's Robert Siegel, a ruling has come down: The U.S. Department of Agriculture can regulate how the cats are treated, judges say. The museum gets visitors from out-of-state. It charges those visitors to see Hemingway's home and the famous cats. Interstate commerce gives Uncle Sam an interest, according to the courts.

So the feds can tell the museum to build a higher fence. Or to give the cats some more elevated "condos" to sleep in. The government also could levy fines if the museum doesn't cooperate. Will the museum appeal, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court? Nobody knows just yet.

Richey's written about all this for the Monitor. His story is here. Want to see the cats? There's video of them.

All Things Considered will have more on this later. We'll add the interview to the top of this post when it's ready. Click here if you want to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

As for the cats, they're not commenting. We have our doubts, though, that they'll do what the law says. They're cats.

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If you visit the website of The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Florida, you have several options to click on: the legend of Hemingway, his books, his wives, his children, the home, its architectural details, furnishings and its unusual 1930s vintage swimming pool; the gardens; the tours; weddings at the home; books; brochures; and what turns out to be a surprisingly contentious category: our cats. According to the website, 40 to 50 polydactyl cats - that is six-toed cats - some of them descended from Hemingway's own six-toed cat Snowball.

The Hemingway cats were the subject of a federal court ruling Friday. Despite the objections of the museum, a three-judge appellate panel ruled that the cats are subject to federal regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Warren Richey covers legal affairs and the Supreme Court for The Christian Science Monitor. And, Warren, this means you've been covering the Hemingway cats.



SIEGEL: Well, who wants the cats in Key West to be regulated by the USDA?

RICHEY: About a decade ago, someone complained. And they didn't just complain to the city. They didn't just complain to the county or the state. They took their complaint all the way to the federal government, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In effect, they made a federal case out of it.


SIEGEL: They said there's something wrong with the way these cats are being treated here.

RICHEY: Yes. And the USDA sent an inspector, an animal inspector down and looked the place over. I think it was a two-hour inspection.

SIEGEL: The museum, I gather, went to court to say we don't want to be inspected. We don't want to be regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

RICHEY: The museum said this is a house. We allow visitors to come in, and there are cats. They have lived here continuously since Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his greatest works. These are direct descendants of those Hemingway cats. They've never not lived there.

SIEGEL: And the federal law that governs the treatment of animals you might see at a museum or on a tour?

RICHEY: Yeah. A circus, a zoo, the Animal Welfare Act. This is a federal law that allows the government to come in and keep an eye on how animals are being treated at animal exhibits where there's a fee charged to see the show.

SIEGEL: What might regulation consist of? What could the USDA require?

RICHEY: Well, they actually asked them to build a higher fence. There's a brick wall, a historic brick wall around the house built by Hemingway. They wanted the cats confined to the one-acre property. They also suggested that there needed to be a night watchman there. The cats generally go where they please, and so in essence, they were asking this watchman to herd cats at night.

SIEGEL: And have you encountered any important animal law precedent here that governs these cases?

RICHEY: Well, there - the underlying precedent is the Commerce Clause. The museum asks the question: Why would the federal government have authority over cats confined to a one-acre lot in Key West, Florida? The irony here is that Key West is perhaps one of the best environments, most cat-friendly environments in the United States. The neighborhood where this house is located allows other cats to roam free, and everyone, pretty much everyone puts out food for these cats. Also, there are chickens.


SIEGEL: You mean that are also roaming free. Do they come under - well - but they're not being displayed, so they wouldn't come under the Animal Welfare Act.

RICHEY: Exactly, exactly.

SIEGEL: Warren Richey, thank you very much for talking with us.

RICHEY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Warren Richey covers legal affairs for The Christian Science Monitor, and he's been talking about the case of the Hemingway cats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.