Why is the federal government trying to confiscate Papa Hemingway's Cats?

EH 3155PIt started with one.

Only one.

It always does.

The captain of a ship brought Ernest Hemingway a single white cat named snowball to keep him company while he tucked himself away in his Key West, Florida, home, writing such classics as The Old Man and The Sea, Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and a Moveable Feast.

The cat was odd. He was a little different.

Snowball had six toes.

“A six-toed cat is a good luck charm,” the captain said.

Hemingway didn’t doubt it for a minute.

He let the cat run loose in the house and the yard, and the Snowball rewarded him with litter after litter of six-toed cats.

Hemingway and his wife gave them the names of famous people, and the cats have their own private cemetery, which holds the graves of Frank Sinatra, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Davis, among others.

One story about a six-toed cat named Uncle Willie portrays the tender and sensitive side of a man of relished running with the bulls, fighting the bulls, battling tarpon at sea, and traversing the snows of Kilimanjaro.

Uncle Willie had been hit by a car. His legs were broken. His nerves were crushed. He was in terrific pain. There was no hope for him.

Hemingway would write in a letter to a close friend: “I had Rene get a bowl of milk for him, and Rene held him and caressed him, and Willie was drinking the milk while I shot him through the head. I don’t think he could have suffered … I have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for eleven years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.”

Even after Hemingway left us, pretty much the same way, generations of Snowball’s descendants remained, and when the home was officially opened as a museum, the cats became part of the exhibits, wandering down hallways, lying on the sofa, perched on Hemingway’s desk, and curled up on his iron-framed bed or his pillow.

They are the living Hemingway legacy.

And now as many as forty or fifty of cats roam in and out of the home, and because on customer complained about them back in 2003, the government is out to get them. The case has gone to court, and a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the Department of Agriculture has the power to regulate the cats under the Animal Welfare Act – usually restricted for zoos, traveling carnivals, and circus animals.

The judges said that federal officials had the right to impose regulations on the museum because it attracts out of state visitors. There was something in the ruling about interstate commerce.

According to the decision, the museum will have to put the cats in cages overnight, install electric wire on a brick wall, build a higher fence, and maybe even employ a night watchman to monitor the little six-toed creatures. The Museum points out that an electric wire could shock tourists, as well as cats, and the brick wall would cause the Hemingway House to lose his designation as as National Historic Site. The government is threatening thousands of dollars worth of fines and maybe even confiscation of the cats.

The cats ain’t happy. Their welfare has never been an issue. They are fed. They are cared for. Most have been spayed or neutered. And they receive weekly visits from a veterinarian.

In fact, when the Agriculture Department sent the People for the Ethical Treatment of animals to take a close look and assess the situation in 2005, the chief investigator reported: “What I found was a bunch of fat, happy, and relaxed cats. God save the cats.”

It wasn’t enough.

The government wanted control.

The government always does.

It is sad that Hemingway is not still around. I wonder how he would have fought back – perhaps with his typewriter, but probably with his shotgun.

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