A Farewell to Felines at Hemingway's Home

It is a luxurious life for the 46 cats on the grounds of Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, Fla. The fact that the federal government is now investigating them doesn't seem to concern the likes of cats with names like Rita Heyworth, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin.

Terry Curtis is a veterinary behaviorist flown in by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week — on your tax dollars — to make sure these cats comply with the laws of the land. Some people call her the Cat Whisperer (or Whis-purr-er).

When asked about her new nickname, Curtis said, "I think that's great!"

But why has she been called to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum?

"My understanding is that the USDA and the Hemingway house are in contention about getting the cats in this facility under compliance with the Animal Welfare Act," said Curtis.

Hemingway and the Six-Toed Cats

No one disputes that cats have been part of Hemingway's house since he lived here in the 1930s. Photos seem to confirm that despite his macho image, the legendary writer was a cat lover.

A tour guide at the house said that "he did have over 50 cats himself, at one time. Named after famous people … Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes and more."

Yes, some of the 200,000 tourists who visit the Hemingway home each year come to see the place where Papa Hemingway crafted some of the greatest works of American literature; but it's fair to say that cats are a big part of the privately owned museum's popularity — hence, the cat paraphernalia in the museum gift shop.

And these are not just any cats.

Linda Mendez, who works at the museum, points out what makes these cats special. "His toes, look at how he has a thumb," she said, holding one of the cats. "Most cats have five front toes and four back toes, and we have cats who have six and seven toes. And it appears to be a thumb in most cases."

Cats Gone Wild

It isn't their extra toes that have the federal government on alert. It's the fact that they roam free, and there are so many of them.

Cara Higgins — a local legal beagle — is the museum's lawyer. "We have been trying to resolve this situation since 2003, and we have literally been trying to hit a moving target ever since."

Why is the government after these cats? Higgins said no one seems to know.

"We know that one of the neighbors, who used to be affiliated with a local animal shelter, originally contacted the USDA. They got the complaint, and ever since, they've been involved. … We think it's because they like to come to Key West and 'investigate,'" Higgins said, making the quote sign with her hands.

"They've been coming normally when it's cold in Washington — they're down here quite a bit."

Fencing in the Felines

It's about animal welfare, said the USDA, which wouldn't give us an interview. It is trying to use a law originally designed to protect traveling circus animals from abuse. The problem here is that the cats can, and sometimes do, wander onto the streets. The staff has tried to combat the problem with a fence.

"It's basically chicken wire that we've installed to try to keep the cats from jumping over the wall," said Higgins. "Not that it's really a problem, but the USDA thinks it is, so, therefore, we put it up to … try to appease them."

But federal bureaucrats are not so easily appeased — which is why the cat whis-purr-er has been sent in this week. As a University of Florida veterinarian, Curtis knows this looks, well, silly.

When asked if there's a way to resolve this without losing the charm of the Hemingway Home or caging the cats, Curtis said, "I certainly hope so. That's my intention."

As for the cats, well, it seems perfectly clear they have no dog in this cat fight.

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