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To cat and cat not

You know how it is there, early in the morning in Key West, with the cats still asleep against the walls of the pool house. They are fine cats. They sleep well.

Leaning on the rail of the veranda, under the palms and the hard blue sky, I look down on the broad lawn behind the house. These good cats wander back and forth in the shade all through the mornings and hot afternoons. They want for nothing. Most have six toes on each paw, but they are fine cats.

With a curse, I bring my hand down hard on the veranda rail. Blast it all, USDA! This depraved agency would put these cats in cages like common criminals! And their only crime is that they’re awfully fine cats.

The old cats and the regulatory agency

Sorry. I couldn’t resist channeling a little Hemingway (apologies to the author) after reading an article about a completely absurd and infuriating bureaucratic assault on the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West.

I visited the Hemingway Home many years ago, and like most visitors, I was charmed by the dozens of cats that wander throughout the house and the surrounding grounds. All of the cats are descendents of a six-toed cat given to Hemingway by a ship’s captain in the 1930s. A six-toed cat is known as a polydactyl, and is sometimes referred to as a Hemingway.

But now, after all these years, the cats are suddenly a problem – not a problem for visitors or Conchs (as the Key West locals call themselves) – but a problem for government regulators who can’t see past the fine print in their copies of the Code of Federal Regulations.

For whom the bell tolls

According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, regulators say the museum needs an exhibitor’s license for the cats. Museum operators have pointed out that the cats are not being exhibited, they simply live on the property and are cared for by museum employees. But the USDA isn’t buying it.

Agency officials say that until the cats are contained, the museum will face an exorbitant DAILY fine of $200 per cat. With about 60 cats on the property, that comes to roughly $12,000 per day. The trouble is, the six-foot walls around the Hemingway estate aren’t quite high enough to contain the cats, and the walls can’t be altered because the estate has been designated a National Historic Site. For obvious reasons, museum operators don’t want to put the cats in cages.

The museum’s lawyer, Cara Higgins, told the Sentinel, “It’s beyond insane. This is the same agency that quit researching mad cow disease because of money, yet they have no problem investigating the activities of the Hemingway cats.”

The Hemingway Home and Museum has been in business for more than 40 years. So you might wonder why the USDA waited all this time before they decided to get tough. According to the Sentinel, museum operators believe the sudden interest in the cats can be traced back to a local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

As you may be aware, the SPCA vigorously promotes spaying and neutering of all cats and dogs. Museum operators support this program as well. But while they do have the cats spayed and neutered, they always leave two cats of each gender intact to keep the family line unbroken from that original polydactyl given to Hemingway some 70 years ago.

Of course, the Museum could spay and neuter all their cats and adopt new ones occasionally from the SPCA, but it wouldn’t be quite the same. When you visit the museum and you see all the cats lolling about, sleeping in a shady spot or curled up on a bed, there’s a sense of authenticity about the fact that if Hemingway were alive today, these are the very cats that would be his pets.

And if Hemingway WERE alive today, you can be sure he’d have some choice words for the USDA and the local SPCA.

A farewell to felines

I lifted the warm mug and drained off the last gulp of black coffee. The taste was bitter, but it was good. With an angry curse I hurled the mug across the yard, hoping it might bean a USDA official hiding in the bushes. Maybe knock some sense into his head. These bureaucrats – they are not good or fine.