The USDA is threatening to cage or remove the Hemingway cats from the Hemingway House after almost 40 years on the grounds with no problems.
UPDATE - I have forarded this on to the USDA since we have received our 1000 signatures. HOWEVER, I have yet to receive a reply to my email. I will keep everyone posted. The Orlando Snetinel published another article again today about the situation. There are two women in particular pushing the issue although they no longer work for the SPCA and are not neighbors of the Hemingway house either. Here is the link: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/state/orl-la-hemcats0729,0,3093002.story?coll=orl_mezz
KEY WEST -- For more than 40 years, they have lounged on Ernest Hemingway's bed, lolled in his garden, and sipped water from the urinal he dragged home from his favorite saloon -- all to the delight of tourists from around the world.
But now the nearly 50 cats at The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, about half of whom bear a telltale sixth toe on their front paws, are felines non grata -- scofflaws who, in the eyes of the federal government, must be better confined or kept under guard.
The reason? The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the author's one-time home in Key West needs a license to exhibit the descendants of the original polydactyl, or extra-toed, cat he is said to have received from a ship captain in the 1930s.
Without one, the USDA contends, the museum is violating the Animal Welfare Act and subject to a daily fine of $200 per cat -- nearly $10,000 a day. But unless it contains the free-roaming cats, the museum can't get a license.
"They're operating illegally," said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers. "They don't have an exhibitor's license. An exhibitor is anyone that exhibits animals to the public that we would regulate. This would include zoos, circuses and magicians or anyone who uses animals in their acts, or in their advertisements."
The Hemingway Home clearly features its world-famous felines in its brochures and on its Web site, but the managers insist the law applies only to animals bought or sold in commerce. Their cats, they say, are merely residents of the house, who, like their ancestors, were born and will die on the property.
"They're not on exhibit there. They live there," said museum CEO Mike Morawski, whose great-aunt purchased the Hemingway house after the author's 1961 suicide in Idaho. "Visitors enjoy the links to history, and we talk about the Hemingway cats just like we talk about his wives and his pool."
Taking their cat fight to court, museum officials asked a federal judge last month to decide whether the animal-welfare law applies to the museum and if so, to rule that the 6-foot brick wall Hemingway built in 1937 meets the "containment" requirements for exhibition animals.
"It's beyond insane," said Cara Higgins, the museum's lawyer. "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."
That sentiment is widespread in Key West, a town that takes its cats seriously, dressing them up for Easter parades and displaying their visages in books and gallery windows. None, though, are more treasured than the Hemingway house cats.
"What a joke," said innkeeper Tom Coward, who is still miffed that two government agents rented a room overlooking the Hemingway property to videotape the cats. "With all the other problems we have, I think it's just plain silly."
Rogers would not say what prompted the investigation by the USDA, which had never visited the museum or questioned the care of its feline population in its first 39 years of operation. The museum opened in 1964.
But that changed in October 2003, when a USDA veterinarian arrived for a random visit and advised museum officials they needed an exhibitor license. For the next three years, Morawski said, the museum tried to meet USDA's changing demands, even attempting to herd its cats.
They tried shock collars. They cut trees and installed a mesh ledge and $15,000 misting system around the brick wall. But nothing worked. A few felines still managed to cat around, drawing the attention of the Key West Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
According to a USDA report, the society has trapped and impounded the same Hemingway cat, a 2-year-old tom named Ivan, five times since January.
Today, Ivan is often confined to a cage, and museum officials blame the nonprofit organization, which promotes spaying and neutering of all cats and dogs, for his predicament -- and for the USDA's sudden interest.
Morawski said he supports spaying and neutering, too. But the museum usually keeps two cats of each gender intact to perpetuate the Hemingway line, sterilizing them after they've produced a litter. Today, Ivan is the only non-neutered adult on the property.
And that, he said, has displeased society officials, particularly Vice President Deborah Schultz, who lives nearby. Neither Schultz nor other SPCA officials returned repeated calls seeking comment.
"She thought we should be getting our polydactyls from the SPCA," Morawski said. "There were enough around."
A Key West institution
Cats have been prevalent in Key West since the 1850s, when the nation's southernmost city was a major port. Every boat hauling goods from the Gulf to the Northeast stopped by, and most had cats on board, preferably the six-toed variety. Sailors not only thought they brought good luck at sea, but that they were good rat-catchers.
Hemingway's infatuation with the six-toed creatures would turn them into icons, making them synonymous with his name. Today, their descendants attract a sizable number of cat lovers to the two-story Spanish colonial home on Whitehead Street, where the 1954 Nobel Prize winner lived with his second wife, Pauline, for nine years.
"A lot of people say, 'I don't need the tour. I just came to see the cats,' " guide David Gonzales said. If they're patient, visitors can glimpse the cats drinking from the world's most famous cat fountain, actually a Spanish olive urn set atop the urinal Hemingway claimed from Sloppy Joe's Bar in 1937.
As Gonzales tells the story, when the bar moved, the owner dragged everything, including the fixtures in the recently remodeled bathroom, into the street. When Hemingway spotted the porcelain trough, he quipped, "I've poured enough money down that drain that it should be mine."
By the next morning, the urinal sat near the $20,000 pool that Pauline, much to her husband's chagrin, had just installed.
Decades later, Charles Anton could only shake his head as he strolled the grounds, searching for hidden cats.
"These are Hemingway's cats," the electronics technician from California said. "They're part of history. If they're [the government] going to take them, they might as well take the pool."
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