by columnist Madeline Karp
I’m ashamed to tell you how I learned about Hemingway cats. It was not in a high school literature class, nor an intro to evolutionary sciences lecture. No, I learned about the six-toed felines from Tiger Beat Magazine – Backstreet Boy Nick Carter owned one. Obviously as a BSB-loving tweener, I found this detail totally important, and filed it away for future use.
The future is now!
“Hemingway” is a colloquial term for a polydactyl feline; it’s a cat with extra toes. They’re quite common in New England, but are instead called Boston thumb cats, Vermont snowshoe cats, or mitten cats. Folklore bounces between Boston seafarers considering them lucky, and frightened Puritans killing them for being witches’ familiars.
Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we don’t have any particular superstitions about them, but we do call them Hemingway cats because many are descended from Ernest Hemingway’s beloved six-toed pet, Snowball.
Currently, 40-odd Hemingway cats reside in the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. They have complete run of the place – they are allowed to sleep on the furniture, walk around the yard and more or less do what they like as Snowball’s “heirs.”
But, according to the federal government, the museum is toeing the line (if you will), by refusing to follow federal regulations regarding the treatment, exhibition and transport of animals under the Animal Welfare Act. (For more on that, click here.) Because the cats are used in museum advertising, are highlighted on tours, and have their likenesses sold in the museum gift shop, they are legally considered part of the museum’s collection.
The museum has cried foul, saying they follow state and local regulations by feeding the cats, giving them regular vet visits, and spaying and neutering when necessary. Museum staffers say the cats aren’t part of the collection because they don’t deal directly with Hemingway’s legacy – just Snowball’s. So long as the cats are not mistreated, they say, it’s none of the government’s business.
However, a recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling has stated that the museum must, in fact, abide by the Department of Agriculture’s rules. Whether or not they like it, legally the museum is subject to the agency’s whim; since 2003 the government has threatened cat confiscation, shut down tours for federal investigations, recommended the museum hire a night watchman for the cats, and stipulated that the museum must install higher fences and have specific food and water dispensers. As one can imagine, sudden changes to such federal policy could wreak havoc on the museum’s budget.
I understand why the federal government wants to regulate the Hemingway cats. But every time federal agents have reported on the cats, they’ve found little more than fat, happy cats with a few extra toes. The cats rarely wander off the property and it seems the museum is as attentive to the felines as any domestic pet owner. This seems to me like little more than red tape and a waste of time and tax dollars.
However, if you use the cats in museum advertising and tourists come specifically to see them, how can one argue that they’re not part of the collection? If an aggressive Hemingway cat wanders off the property (as cats will sometimes do) and bites someone, is the museum liable?
What do you think? Should the cats be accessioned as a living collection and regulated under federal law? Or is the museum just where they happen to live? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!
To learn more about the Hemingway cats and the Ernest Hemingway House’s legal battles, check out these articles: