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Julie Garber

Descendants of Ernest Hemingway's Cat Snowball Subject to Federal Regulation

By December 28, 2012

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Having lived in Key West for 6 years, adopted two Key West cats from the Florida Keys SPCA, and visited the Ernest Hemingway home and its famous polydactyl cats (ones with six "toes" instead of five on their front paws - my Key West cats, Sonoma and Cabo, shown in the top picture, have the normal number) located at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West dozens of times, the ruling recently handed down in the case of 907 Whitehead Street, Inc. v. Secretary of State of the U.S. Department of Agriculture caught my eye.

The ruling in the case starts with the history of how Mr. Hemingway's Key West home, where he lived from 1931 to 1938, ended up housing so many polydactyl cats. During that time a ship captain named Stanley Dexter, who was one of Mr. Hemingway's drinking buddies, gave the writer a white polydactyl cat named Snowball. Since then, according the ruling, "Snowball's polydactyl progeny (the "Hemingway cats") have thrived and populated the property." Mr. Hemingway died in July 1961 and later that year a local woman named Bernice Dixon purchased 907 Whitehead Street from Mr. Hemingway's estate for $80,000, along with its resident cats (the cats were not specifically mentioned in the purchase and sale agreement but were simply present at the property when Ms. Dixon took possession). Ms. Dixon resided at the home as her personal residence for several years but decided to open it up for tours in 1964, and today the heirs of Ms. Dixon maintain the home, grounds and its famous polydactyl cats as a museum.

If you have ever visited the Hemingway house in Key West, you will no doubt have run into multiple descendants of Snowball roaming freely about the grounds, although during the muggy summer months many hide in the shade or air-conditioned gift shop, while others enjoy sleeping on Mr. Hemingway's bed or drinking from a fountain made from an old urinal. At any given time there are between 50 - 60 descendants of Snowball living at the museum, and apparently at some point all the way back in 2003 a visitor filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") regarding the museum's care of the famous cats, which, as mentioned above, are allowed to roam freely about the estate at all times (as shown in the bottom picture, the estate is enclosed by a brick wall about 5 feet tall that has wire on top). This prompted a USDA inspection which led to the conclusion that the museum is an "animal exhibitor" and therefore subject to USDA regulation under the Animal Welfare Act ("AWA").

To make a long story short, the museum appealed the USDA's ruling and the lower court upheld the USDA's jurisdiction to regulate the museum as an animal exhibitor. The museum then appealed the lower court's ruling and in early December the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling, which means that the museum, as an animal exhibitor, must do the following:

  1. Maintain an animal exhibitor's license;
  2. Contain and cage the cats in individual shelters at night (good luck rounding up 50 - 60 cats each night), or alternatively, construct a higher fence or an electric wire atop the existing brick wall (good luck getting that approved by HARC), or alternatively, hire a night watchman to monitor the cats (what a fun job);
  3. Tag each cat for identification purposes;
  4. construct additional elevated resting surfaces for the cats within their existing enclosures; and
  5. Pay fines for the museum's non-compliance with the AWA.

The appeals court ruling concludes: "Notwithstanding our holding, we appreciate the Museum's somewhat unique situation, and we sympathize with its frustration. Nevertheless, it is not the court's role to evaluate the wisdom of federal regulations implemented according to the powers constitutionally vested in Congress."

So there you have it - descendants of Ernest Hemingway's polydactyl cat, Snowball, who have been living quite happily and freely on the island of Key West since the 1930s, are now suddenly subject to the rules and regulations of the federal government. Having visited the Key West landmark dozens of times and observed how the Hemingway's cats are treated by visitors and staff - like royalty - I for one think that there is certainly a better use for my hard-earned tax dollars than regulating the descendants of Snowball.

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