The caretakers of Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home want a federal judge to intervene in their dispute with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the six-toed cats that roam the property.
More than 50 descendants of a multi-toed cat the novelist received as a gift in 1935 wander the grounds of the home, where Hemingway lived for more than 10 years and wrote “A Farewell to Arms” and “To Have and Have Not.”
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum disputes the USDA’s claim that it is an “exhibitor” of cats and needs to have a USDA Animal Welfare License, according to a complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Miami.
“What they’re comparing the Hemingway house to is a circus or a zoo because there are cats on the premises,” Cara Higgins, the home’s attorney, said Friday. “This is not a traveling circus. These cats have been on the premises forever.”
A message left Friday afternoon at the Washington, D.C., office of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was not immediately returned.
The agency has repeatedly denied a license for the Hemingway home under the Animal Welfare Act, which the home contends governs animals in commerce. The USDA has threatened to charge the home $200 per cat per day for violating the act, according to the complaint.
“We’re asking the judge to let us know whether this act applies to the cats, and if so why that is if the animals are not in commerce,” Higgins said. “If it has something to do with the number of cats, how many do we have to get rid of to be in compliance with the act?”
Agency inspectors who have repeatedly visited the property since October 2003 have never indicated any concerns about the welfare of the cats. But they have said a 6-foot-high, brick-and-mortar fence Hemingway built around the property in 1937 did not sufficiently contain the 53 cats, which should be caged, according to the complaint.
Caging the cats, some of which are 19 years old or older, would traumatize them, and the home’s designation as a National Historic Site prohibits extending the height of the fence, the complaint said.
The tourist site complies with city and county ordinances, Higgins said. “We don’t know why the USDA got involved in this,” she said.