How Ernest Hemingway's cats became a federal case (+video)
The descendants of Ernest Hemingway's cats – dozens of them – freely roam the writer's former home, now a museum. In a controversial court case, a judge says the felines must be regulated under federal law.
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A lawyer for the museum told the judge that this was not a federal issue and that there were better-situated agencies in Key West, Monroe County, or the State of Florida to monitor and regulate the care and feeding of cats in Key West.Skip to next paragraph
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The judge disagreed. He ruled that the USDA was well within its authority to regulate the cats.
The museum appealed. In a unanimous decision announced on Friday, the three-judge panel agreed that the USDA does, in fact, have the necessary authority to regulate the Hemingway cats.
The court said the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has been broadly interpreted by federal officials to authorize regulation of any exhibit of animals that are made available to the public.
There is no dispute that the museum includes scores of cats that are permitted to roam the grounds during visiting hours. Since admission is charged to see the house and the cats are part of the property, the AWA permits regulation of the cats, the court said.
The appeals court also concluded this broad interpretation of the AWA to extend to the regulation of cats in a museum did not exceed Congress’s power to authorize such federal regulations under the Commerce Clause.
The question, the court said, was whether the Hemingway cats “substantially affect” interstate commerce.
The judges said they do.
“The Museum argues that its activities are of a purely local nature because the Hemingway cats spend their entire lives at the Museum – the cats are never purchased, never sold, and never travel beyond 907 Whitehead Street. But the local character of the activity does not necessarily exempt it from federal regulation,” Chief Judge Joel Dubina said in his 13-page decision.
“The Museum invites and receives thousands of admissions-paying visitors from beyond Florida, many of whom are drawn by the Museum’s reputation for and purposeful marketing of the Hemingway cats,” Dubina wrote.
“The exhibition of the Hemingway cats is integral to the Museum’s commercial purpose, and thus, their exhibition affects interstate commerce,” he said. “For these reasons, Congress has the power to regulate the Museum and the exhibition of the Hemingway cats via the AWA.”
Chief Judge Dubina added a concession at the end of the decision.
“Notwithstanding our holding, we appreciate the Museum’s somewhat unique situation, and we sympathize with its frustration,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, it is not the court’s role to evaluate the wisdom of federal regulations implemented according to the powers constitutionally vested in Congress.”
One added irony in the cat case is that Whitehead Street bisects a section of Key West well known for the large number of chickens and roosters roaming freely through the streets.