Claws out in Florida Keys over Hemingway cats

KEY WEST, Florida Wed Jul 18, 2007 10:16am EDT

Cats are seen outside of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in an undated handout photo, released to Reuters on July 17, 2007. A game of cat and mouse is under way between the U.S. government and Florida's Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum over the fate of dozens of felines roaming the former home of the Nobel Prize-winning author. REUTERS/Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum/Handout

Cats are seen outside of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in an undated handout photo, released to Reuters on July 17, 2007. A game of cat and mouse is under way between the U.S. government and Florida's Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum over the fate of dozens of felines roaming the former home of the Nobel Prize-winning author.

Credit: Reuters/Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum/Handout

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KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - A game of cat and mouse is under way between the U.S. government and Florida's Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum over the fate of dozens of felines roaming the former home of the Nobel Prize-winning author.

The claws are out over whether the 47 cats that live on the grounds where Hemingway wrote "To Have and Have Not" should be caged or even allowed to remain on the lush subtropical property, one of the Florida Keys' major tourist attractions.

Around half are six-toed, or polydactyl.

U.S. Animal and Plant Inspection Service officials argue that the house, listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1968, requires a federal Animal Welfare License, like a circus or zoo, in order to keep housing the cats.

The city of Key West and Monroe County, which includes Key West and the other islands in the Keys chain off Florida's southeastern tip, are fighting back against federal intervention.

"I think it's kind of sad that a government agency would be spending taxpayers' money on this," said Linda Mendez, the home's event director and author of the "Hemingway Museum Cats" souvenir book. "We're against caging them because they're not used to it."

The museum opened in 1964 and estimates it has spent nearly $200,000 to comply with federal animal regulations that require proper food storage, veterinary care and containment, such as mesh atop the 6-foot (2-metre) wall around the property.

'WHISPURRER'

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the museum is subject to federal regulations because it promotes the cats online, exhibits them during paid tours, uses them in advertisements and markets them on souvenirs.

It plans to send veterinarian Terry Curtis, an animal behaviorist from the University of Florida -- already dubbed the "cat whispurrer" by locals -- to observe the cats' mental state and physical condition on July 23.

The Hemingway Museum failed three compliance inspections and several cats have been injured or killed since October 2003, the USDA said.

"In 2005 alone, there were 12 occasions when cats left the property; in two of these cases, Hemingway cats were killed by cars," it said.

A federal judge has ordered the two sides to work out their differences.

The spat began when the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lodged a complaint in 2003, spurred on by a former Hemingway House volunteer.

According to the tale told to 400 to 600 daily visitors, a ship's captain gave Hemingway his first polydactyl cat, Snowball, and many of the current felines are Snowball's descendants.

The macho writer, an avid fisherman and sportsman, was photographed with cats at his homes in Key West, Cuba and Paris.

But one book claims the cats are descendants of a Key West neighbor's pet crippled by a bullet Hemingway fired to put it out of its misery after it was injured, possibly by a car. The neighbor's cat lost an eye but survived.

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