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The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Key West, Florida
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, situated in the old town on the small island of Key West, Florida, is where the author lived and worked for ten years, and it houses some 60-odd cats. The great man, who was very fond of the animals, was given a six-toed cat in 1935 by a ship's captain, and some of the present-day cats are descended from that original one who was called Snowball. About half of them are also six-toed, or polydactyl, with an extra toe on their front paws and, in a few cases, also on the back ones.
The cats, which are of no particular breed but come in all colours, shapes and sizes, live in the museum grounds and their care and feeding are paid for by the museum, which is a privately owned business open 365 days a year. Much of the food is supplied free by the pet-food company Eukanuba, and other treats are given from time to time. The cats' feeding is the responsibility of the museum caretakers; healthcare is well catered for on site and there is a visiting vet who attends at least weekly and also administers (sometimes with some difficulty!) the annual vaccinations and injections. The animals generally live to a good age, anywhere from 11 to 22 years, and when they do die they are buried in a small cemetery in one corner of the property.
Most of the animals are spayed or neutered, but enough are kept entire for a small number of kittens to be born annually, to maintain the Hemingway cat line and to replace those who die from old age, sickness or accident. In earlier years kittens were sometimes sold, but that is no longer the case and all the newborns remain on the site. The breeding cats carry the polydactyl gene.
All the cats are named many after movie stars! and most of them will respond to their names and will develop an affectionate bond with their carers. A complete list of all the feline residents is maintained and kept up to date by the museum. We have included a few pictures showing some of the residents; more of them, and more information, can be found on the website.
There was a long-running battle between the Hemingway Museum and the United States Department of Agriculture, with the latter claiming that the museum needed an Animal Welfare License because it 'exhibited' the cats. The museum categorically denied the animals were being exhibited, and said they simply lived there. The USDA refused to issue the required licence under the Animal Welfare Act, meanwhile threatening to fine the museum with a substantial daily charge for failing to have a licence. The museum issued a complaint against the USDA to try to bring things to a head, but in December 2006 a federal judge dismissed that complaint so in mid-2007 the matter apparently remained unresolved. Many people, not just in the US, saw the whole thing as an example of heavy-handed bureaucracy, and there was an on-line petition where museum sympathisers could sign on to support the museum and add their voice to those saying, 'Leave the Hemingway cats alone.' More about the dispute can be found at USA Today.
In July 2008 it was reported that the Key West city commission backed the Hemingway Museum's claim that the resident felines are not exhibits, and exempted them from the city law prohibiting more than four domestic animals per household. The ruling read: The cats reside on the property just as [they] did in the time of Hemingway himself. They are not on exhibition in the manner of circus animals. The city commission finds that the family of polydactyl Hemingway cats are indeed animals of historic, social and tourism significance an integral part of the history and ambiance of the Hemingway House.
The USDA was 'unavailable for comment' about the ruling, but it seems common sense finally prevailed although a further court appearance was required of the two sides in the dispute when a cat behaviourist had assessed the welfare of the cats.
Hemingway with his cats
Note: There is a superb and lavishly illustrated book about Hemingway's life, his loves, his cats and his dogs. It's called Hemingway's Cats an Illustrated Biography, written by Carlene Fredericka Brennen and published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida in 2006, ISBN 978-1-56164-342-4. Highly recommended to anyone wanting to learn more about a remarkable man, and full of details about the cats in his life.
It seems that the long-running dispute mentioned above was finally settled, and the cats now continue to live peacefully at the museum, with their status no longer in question.
The Hemingway house is sturdily built and has survived many hurricanes over the years, but Hurricane Irma in September 2017 was an especially severe one and was due to make landfall over the Florida Keys. However, there was plenty of warning and so all the windows were boarded up, stocks of food, cat food, water and medication were taken in and ten volunteers brought all the cats inside and prepared to care for them and sit out the storm until the weather improved. In the event the estate suffered less damage than other nearby locations and everyone survived without mishap.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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