A six-toed cat named Hairy Truman walks on a table in Ernest Hemingway's… (Rob O'Neal / Florida Keys…)
The federal government is the ultimate master of the roughly 40 cats, many with six toes, that lounge around the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla.
A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the power to regulate the cats, agreeing with a district court that the museum is an animal exhibitor and can be regulated under the Animal Welfare Act.
The cats, some of them kin of Ernest Hemingway's six-toed pet Snowball, have roamed free for generations. Hemingway penned several of his masterpieces at the Key West estate when he called it home in the 1930s.
But in a dispute that goes back nearly a decade, the federal government has maintained that the cats have more in common with performers in a zoo or circus than your typical house cat.
The museum said the USDA sought to make it cage the felines in individual shelters at night, build a higher fence, erect an electrical wire atop the home’s brick wall or hire a night watchman to monitor the cats so they couldn’t escape, court documents say.
A USDA representative told the Los Angeles Times in 2007 that the agency wanted only that "enclosures be set up so other animals can't enter [the property] and the cats can't get into the street," not that the felines be given individual cages.
Museum Chief Executive Mike Morawski told The Times this week that the museum installed mesh fencing to keep the cats in the compound several years ago, which satisfied the department's demands.
But now an appeals court has agreed with the USDA that the department can regulate the cats. Just what that means for the museum and cats is unclear, but Morawski worries that inspectors will demand more changes.
“Tomorrow, the USDA inspector could come back in the property and say, 'You know your cat escaped the other day through the fencing and you need to resolve the problem,’” he said.
The dispute goes back years.
After receiving a complaint over the cats' care, a USDA regional director for animal care decided in October 2003 to label the museum an animal exhibitor because the cats were used in advertising and the museum charged an admission fee.
In 2009, the museum challenged the agency’s decision in federal court, arguing the federal government did not have the power to regulate the cats under the Commerce Clause because the animals were never purchased and remained in one place.
Morawski described the tactics of USDA officials as heavy-handed. “They came to our community, our local business and said, 'Your state, city, county regulations are not enough,’” he said.
But a district court ruled in favor of the government, and on Friday a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Morawski said he is thinking of lobbying for legislative action to correct what he sees as an overreach.
And what do the Hemingway cats think of the years-long legal battle? Not much.
“Thank God, they are just going on their way,” Morawski said with a chuckle. “We could all be so lucky to be as happy as they are.”