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At Hemingway's home, claws out over 47 cats

The museum's battle with the USDA has lasted nearly four years

July 29, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KEY WEST, FLA. — The notion that Charlie Chaplin is putting on a show as he snoozes on the Hemingway Home and Museum veranda -- well, that's enough to make a cat laugh.

But neither the fluffy feline, named for the Little Tramp because of his tuxedo-like markings, nor his 46 companions lazing around the late author's estate are likely to be amused if the U.S. government succeeds in designating them an animal act and restricts their freedom.

Pampered cats, some of them descendants of Ernest Hemingway's six-toed pet Snowball, have had the run of the leafy compound for generations.

They are named for the writer's wives, fictional characters, Hollywood friendsand colleagues. Zane Grey and Truman Capote often can be found napping in the flower beds between the villa and the pool. Archibald MacLeish prefers the cool tile floor of the master bathroom. Emily Dickinson seems indifferent to the camera flashes catching her in repose on a predecessor's tombstone, rarely bestirring herself from the limelight.

Fed organic cat food, tended weekly by a visiting veterinarian, and petted, photographed and cooed at by adoring tourists, the cats have become a beloved quirk of this Key West landmark.

But the languid lifestyle of the Hemingway Home cats is threatened by proposals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that they be treated like performers in a zoo or circus. The feds want the museum to obtain an animal exhibition license, which would require staff to "protect" the felines from contact with spectators and cage them after their daily "performance" ends when the front gate closes at 5 p.m.

"Our cats do not do tricks. They don't do flips and jump through hoops. They're our pets!" said Jacque Sands, manager and 14-year veteran at the museum, where the cats can curl up in kitty condos scattered through the gardens. "They own us. We don't own them."

The trouble began as a spat with a neighbor several years ago. Now, the conflict pits the cats' keepers against two former members of the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Motivated by concern for what they considered an excessive cat population on the property and the potential for the cats to escape and be run over, Gwen Hawtof and Debra Schultz are believed to have brought the museum to the attention of those charged with applying the 1966 Animal Welfare Act, said the museum's chief executive, Michael Morawski.

The Hemingway cats rarely strayed from the 1-acre property surrounded by a 5-foot brick wall until Schultz arrived about eight years ago and established a feral-cat feeding site half a block away, Morawski said. Cats began disappearing over the wall and turning up at the SPCA as captured strays, he said.

In October 2003, a USDA inspector posing as a tourist surveyed the grounds and later ordered the museum staff to get a license or face $10,000 in daily fines. Since then, a veterinarian from the USDA has made repeated inspections of the property, recommending increasingly restrictive measures each time, Morawski said.

Angled screens have been installed atop the wall to prevent the cats' jumping over. A misting system is intended to dissuade any critters from loitering close to the exits.

But he and the cats' caregivers balked at government requirements that the museum prevent all escapes by installing an electrified wire atop the wall and 12- to 15-foot-high mesh backstopping, like that used along driving ranges and ball fields.

"Our National Historical Site designation precludes us from doing anything like that," Morawski said. "It became contentious to the point where they said, 'If you can't do these things, you'll have to round them up and put them in cages.' "

That would be traumatizing for cats reared with freedom to roam about the flowering gardens, fountains and louvered salons of the house and outbuildings, Sands said.

The only known off-site fatality involved a cat run over after being lured out by the activists, Sands said.

Neither Hawtof nor Schultz has a listed phone number and an SPCA spokeswoman said neither is associated with the society anymore.

USDA spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said the agency was not insisting on individual cages for the cats, just that "enclosures be set up so other animals can't enter and the cats can't get into the street."

She said she couldn't comment on the exact changes sought at the museum because the case had become a legal matter. The museum has challenged the USDA designation in district court, which has sent the case back to the parties to seek a negotiated solution.

The cat population is down from its usual 60 or so, although museum managers are eagerly expecting a litter in early autumn to replace a generation succumbing to old age -- including Mark Twain, whose cancer claimed him at 21 last year, and 20-year-old Trevor Howard, who was euthanized in July when his kidneys failed.

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