The Old Man and the Meow

Key West visitors who miss their morning meows from Tabby can enjoy a kitty fix by visiting the former home of Ernest Hemingway.

The Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West may be renowned as the famous writer's Florida residence, but it's also home to more than 60 cats, many of them descendants of "Papa's" first feline, a six-toed cat given to him by a ship's captain.

Hemingway lived in the Spanish-colonial-style home for 30 years, from 1931 until his death in 1961. Visitors to the home, set amid lush tropical gardens, expect to see where Hemingway ate, slept, and wrote (in, er, earnest). But they don't expect to be greeted by a parade of felines, some of which roll over and offer their bellies for a rub, while others hop onto the admission-booth counter to meow a greeting.

In short, life is good for a Hemingway Home cat. The furry residents are given free range of the grounds, including the bookstore and the house, where one is often caught snoozing on the bedspread in the master bedroom.

A barroom urinal Hemingway converted into a water trough sits at their disposal in the lush, tropical garden. The local veterinarian makes house calls to give annual exams and shots. On top of these perks, attention and affection from staff and visitors are as constant as Key West's trade winds.

Hemingway named his cats after celebrities, and the museum staff continues this practice. Cats have been called everything from Marilyn Monroe and Ida Lupino to Will Shakespeare and Othello. There's even a Bubba (yes, named after former President Bill Clinton), and a US-1, after the local highway.

According to the museum, about half of the cats, like Papa's first, have six to seven toes on their front paws. This trait, called polydactylism, is a result of inbreeding. To prevent further inbreeding, outsiders are allowed dating privileges. Any kittens produced are kept secluded until they are about 4 months old, when they are large enough - and smart enough - to keep from getting underfoot.

Many of the Hemingway Home cats live between 11 and 22 years, well into cat old age. They don't have to leave when the bell tolls: A little cemetery sits nestled in a corner of the property. Yes, life is good.

• The Hemingway Home and Museum is located at 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (305) 294-1136.

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