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Cat fight pits government against Hemingway museum

Rob O'neal / AP

"Hairy Truman," a six-toed "Hemingway cat" walks on a table at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla., on Sept. 25, 2008.

A popular tourist attraction has lost another round in the legal battle over who is in charge of the slinky creatures with nine lives and six toes roaming its grounds.

The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday ruled that the government does have the power to regulate the dozens of cats that live at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Fla. — a notion the attraction has fought for years.

The museum declined to comment about the court decision.

Some 250,000 visitors flock to the site each year to experience the house where the famed American writer lived from 1931 to 1938 and see the polydactyl (six-toed) felines whose company he enjoyed.

“There is no doubt that the Hemingway home is one of the landmark attractions on Key West. Hemingway has been gone for more than 50 years, but he’s still a Key West icon,” said Andy Newman, a spokesman for the Florida Keys tourism council.

“Everybody knows about the six-toed cats and certainly they are part of the ambiance and the charm of the Hemingway Home and Museum.”

When he lived in the house, Hemingway — a famous cat lover — cared for a white polydactyl cat named Snowball that was given to him by a ship’s captain. Snowball’s offspring and other felines have been roaming the grounds ever since without much controversy. Court documents note that the museum has always kept, fed, and provided weekly veterinary care for the Hemingway cats, and spayed or neutered most of them “to prevent population beyond the historical norm of 50–60 cats.”

“They’re very much an important part of the history of the property. We want people to come and see it the way it was when Hemingway was here — to see it the same way he saw it, with the 50 cats running around the property,” said Dave Gonzales, a spokesman for the Hemingway Home & Museum, in a promotional video for the attraction posted on YouTube.

“Every corner you take on this acre of land, you’ll find a couple of cats either snoozing or eating or lapping up some water off the cat fountain.”

In 1935, famed author Ernest Hemingway received a cat named "Snowball" while living and writing in Key West. With paws featuring six toes, "Snowball" was the first of a long line of felines that has helped make the Hemingway Home and Museum one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Florida Keys.

But the government began taking a closer look at the operation several years ago, when a visitor complained about the museum’s care of the animals to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to court documents.

In 2003, the USDA declared that the museum was an “animal exhibitor” subject to federal regulation under the Animal Welfare Act because it displayed the animals to the public for an admission fee and used the cats in its advertising. (The same act regulates circuses, zoos and carnivals.)

The museum balked at the decision, which would require it to do everything from cage the cats at night and tag each animal, to build “additional elevated resting surfaces” for the felines.

So in 2009, it filed a complaint in federal court arguing the Animal Welfare Act didn’t apply because it was only meant to protect animals “physically moving in interstate commerce” — while the cats spend their entire lives in one place. But the court ruled in favor of the government, and when the museum appealed, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

In his ruling on Friday, Chief Judge Joel Dubina acknowledged the unusual circumstances of the case.

“We appreciate the Museum’s somewhat unique situation, and we sympathize with its frustration,” Dubina wrote in the decision.

Nevertheless, he found the museum’s display of the cats is not merely local in nature because it markets to out-of-state tourists, many of whom are drawn by the felines.

“The exhibition of the Hemingway cats is integral to the Museum’s commercial purpose, and thus, their exhibition affects interstate commerce,” Dubina wrote.

“For these reasons, Congress has the power to regulate the Museum and the exhibition of the Hemingway cats.”

The museum has the option to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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