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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.

By Staff writer / December 9, 2012

One of more than 60 cats in residence at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Fla., prowls through the late author's writing room. How to care for the cats has become a federal issue.

Roberto Rodriguez/AP

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Key West has a well-earned reputation as a haven for misfits, outcasts, and free-spirits. The locals don’t even consider themselves part of the United States of America. They refer to the place as the Conch Republic.

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A judge ruled Ernest Hemingway's cats must be regulated under federal law.

So it is more than a bit ironic that Key West is also the location of a knock-down, drag-out fight over the federal government’s power under the US Constitution’s Commerce Clause to regulate… cats.

And not just any cats, either. The cats being subjected to federal oversight are the descendants of the famous six-toed felines raised and cared for by former Key West resident and author Ernest Hemingway.

Mr. Hemingway spent most of the 1930s in Key West completing some of his best work. Now, his former house at 907 Whitehead Street is a museum open to daily tours and the occasional wedding.

It also continues to be home to 40 to 50 six-toed cats that are a living legacy of Hemingway. As in Hemingway’s time, the cats are allowed to roam and lounge at will in the house and on the one-acre grounds.

That’s how the federal government became involved.

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At some point several years ago, a museum visitor expressed concern about the cats’ care. The visitor took that concern all the way to the US Department of Agriculture and, literally, made a federal case out of it.

Soon USDA inspectors showed up in Key West. They said that if the museum wanted to display cats it needed an exhibitor’s license as required under the federal Animal Welfare Act. (That’s the same law that regulates circuses, zoos, and traveling dog and pony shows.)

Federal officials advised the museum that it also needed to take action to: Confine the cats in individual cages each night, or construct a higher fence around the property, or install an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or hire a night watchman to keep an eye on the cats.

The museum was ordered to tag each cat for identification, and add additional elevated resting surfaces within the cat’s enclosures.

USDA officials also advised that the museum would face fines for noncompliance.

The museum fought back, asking a federal judge in 2009 to rule that the USDA did not have authority over the Hemingway cats.

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