Backstory: Cage Hemingway's cats?!

Feds say farewell to free-range felines at Key West museum, designating them an 'exhibit.'

Charlie Chaplin saves his best performances for the tourists' cameras. Ava Gardner is known to be a bit of a prima donna. And reports of Mark Twain's demise have been exaggerated, though he's a little older these days and requires help shaving.

Stroll the grounds of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in the heart of Key West and it's not uncommon to find film stars from the golden era rubbing around your legs or dozing peacefully on Papa's old bed. These are the famous six-toed cats – descendants of the author's own beloved pet, Snowball. And they're now the center of a dispute that has set the fur flying between the museum's owners and the US Department of Agriculture.

With Trevor Howard, a black-and-white furball sprawled and snoring at his feet in an air-conditioned office, museum chief executive Mike Morawski explains that government bureaucracy threatens to curtail the languorous, feline idyll.

Under the section of the Animal Welfare Act that deals with "animal exhibitors," the USDA has determined that the 46 resident free-range felines are display animals like those in a zoo, and must be caged.

And Mr. Morawski has taken the USDA to court, asking a federal judge in Miami whether Hemingway's cats must be licensed under the Act. "It's absolutely ludicrous. We are the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum telling people about his house and property. The cats just live here. And if we are an exhibitor, why in the world does our one-acre site, surrounded by a six-foot wall, not serve as containment? We need clarity."

It's perfectly clear, says USDA spokesman Jim Rogers, "It doesn't matter if you have an elephant in your yard if you keep it as a pet, but if you are exhibiting an animal, whether or not you are charging money, then you need a license."

Why now, 42 years after the museum – with cats – started operating?

The USDA cites a 2003 complaint that cats were leaving the grounds and creating a neighborhood nuisance. While the agency won't name the source of the complaint, some fingers point to the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose president, Gwen Hawtof, admits to "interactions" with the museum about roaming cats.

After three years of discussion between the museum and USDA, Morawski says he fulfilled every recommendation from inspectors, including placing an angled fence atop the perimeter wall, but the agency still refused to issue a license. So he sued.

Anything to do with constriction of free will – animal or human – always raises emotion in this independent outpost. This city hired an official "rooster catcher" two years ago to deal with more than 2,000 problem chickens running free through town. But the rooster catcher resigned within six months, complaining of abuse from a fowl-friendly public. Citizens of the Conch Republic, as residents of the Florida Keys like to call themselves following a brief but well-publicized mock secession from the US in 1982 over immigration checkpoints, also take a dim view of federal government muscling in on local affairs.

"You'd think the city has bigger problems than this to deal with," says Tom Coward, owner of the Andrews Inn guesthouse that borders the Hemingway museum. "We certainly didn't complain about the cats. In fact, I miss them coming into the garden since the museum put the fence up. They're not a nuisance, they're neutered and they're well cared for."

The claws may be out in a legal sense. But for the mild-mannered cats used to sleeping the days away, minding their own business in the heat of the Florida summer, life continues pretty much as normal. Mornings bring scores of cruise passengers speeding around the house and grounds, learning in bite-sized chunks about Hemingway's 30 years in America's southernmost town and the history of some of the famous novels that he wrote there, including "To Have and Have Not" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." In the afternoons, tourists with no ships to race back to take a more leisurely pace.

"A lot of the adults are, frankly, more interested in the cats than they are in Hemingway," says "Boston" Bob Smith, a guide at the Whitehead Street museum, which opened three years after the author committed suicide in 1961 and has been the island's most popular tourist attraction since. "People come in and they don't know who Hemingway was. They ask what year was he the president."

The cats' popularity is evident in the busy gift shop, where visitors step over snoozing animals to strip the shelves of cat-themed Christmas baubles, leather bookmarks, decorative wall tiles, and even nail files.

"The cats are a very big deal," says Boston Bob as he leads a tour through the garden past the animals' drinking fountain, a former urinal from Hemingway's favorite Key West bar, Sloppy Joe's. "They all have their own style and character."

The felines also have a VIP following in President Jimmy Carter and his daughter, Amy. What the framed letter from the White House on the living room wall doesn't tell you, but Morawski will, is that when the former first family took a vacation in the Florida Keys in the 1970s, Amy spent an extra 2-1/2 hours petting the cats after her father had returned to his hotel. "She fell in love," Morawski says.

About half the cats at the museum are polydactyls, or 'mitten' cats, meaning they have an extra toe on their front paws. Some have an extra on their back paws, too. It is a result of inbreeding, and originated in New England. The animals were popular as shipboard mousers, and Stanley Dexter, a ship captain, gave Snowball as a gift to Hemingway in the 1930s.

The current "lord of the manor," notes guide Dave Horowitz, is Archibald MacLeish, a fluffy ginger male who spends his winters trying to keep the other cats out of "his" house.

"He's very elegant but very territorial," Horowitz says. "He's in the master bedroom from October until May, then comes down for his summer camp."

Mark Twain is the resident old-timer, a sweet-tempered ginger-colored male of 19 years who is toothless and unable to groom himself properly, necessitating regular shaving by the vet. But, says Horowitz, "Don't feel bad for Mark Twain. He's doing just fine. He gets around on his own and eats very well."

The well-being of the cats is taken seriously, with a veterinarian making weekly house calls.

"Nobody cares about the care of our cats more than we do. The bottom line is that the health and welfare of our animals has never been in contention," he says.

Until now, that is.

Vet Edie Clark is also responsible for one of the greatest spectacles of the year – what museum guides call the "cat rodeo." Staff attempt to round up the animals for their annual shots using treats, but word invariably leaks out via warning meows, and Dr. Clark and her team have to return the following week to catch up with those cats that escaped to the basement.

Meanwhile, as the last tourists of the day head for the exit, Boston Bob urges them to stop by the small cats' cemetery on their way out. "We rival anything Hollywood has to offer," he says. "We've got Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Marlene Dietrich, and Errol Flynn."

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