Cat Behaviorist Is Summoned to Key West in Order to Help Determine the Fate of Hemingway's Polydactyls
"The cats reside on the property just as (they) did in the time of Hemingway himself. They are not on exhibition in the manner of circus animals. The City Commission finds that the family of polydactyl Hemingway cats are indeed animals of historic, social and tourism significance...an integral part of the history and ambiance of Hemingway House."
-- Key West City Commission
Dr. Terry Marie Curtis, a cat behaviorist at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, was scheduled to arrive today at the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West in order to make an evaluation of the health of the author's world famous polydactyl cats. (See photo above of one of them reclining.)
Curtis' eleventh-hour mission is the latest development in a four-year legal and political battle that has pitted the museum against both the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Key West SPCA. (See Cat Defender posts of January 9, 2007 and August 3, 2006 entitled, respectively, "Papa Hemingway's Polydactyl Cats Face New Threats from Both the USDA and Their Caretakers" and "USDA Fines Hemingway Memorial in Key West $200 a Day for 'Exhibiting' Papa's Polydactyl Cats Without a License.")
The trouble began in 2003 when the museum made the catastrophic mistake of enlisting the services of Debra Schultz of the SPCA in getting its forty-six or so cats sterilized. What museum officials did not realize at the time was that she is a sterilization fanatic who in short order had neutered practically all of the tomcats except for one named Ivan.
Had she not been stopped, the polydactyls, whose ancestors have lived at Hemingway's mansion for more than seven decades, would have become extinct. The museum therefore had no choice but to give her the bum's rush.
Mad as hell at having her fun spoiled, she ratted out the museum to the USDA. The agency then dispatched agents to Key West who rented rooms at a nearby guesthouse that overlooked the museum so that they could videotape the comings and goings of Hemingway's cats.
What followed has been a Kafkaesque nightmare for both the cats and the museum. To begin with, the feds claimed that the museum was exhibiting the cats without a license in contravention of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
Although the cats are sans doute one reason why the memorial is such a popular tourist attraction, the museum contends that the AWA applies only to animals exhibited by zoos, circuses, and other entertainment enterprises.
"It is just insanity the time and money that has been spent on this," Cara Higgins, an attorney representing the museum, told the Miami Herald on July 9th. (See "Feds, Key West Stage Catfight over Hemingway House.") "These are local, domestic cats who are born here, live here, and die here. They are not lions and tigers and bears that are being transported from state to state, like a traveling circus."
Needless to say, the USDA vociferously disagrees and began by fining the museum $200 a day for not having a license. When the museum belatedly applied for one the feds refused to issue it because the museum would not imprison the cats in cages.
The USDA next suggested that the brick wall that surrounds the compound be made taller and topped off with an electrified fence but the museum refused to comply with this directive on the grounds that doing so would jeopardize its status as a National Historic Monument. The museum also turned down the USDA's recommendation that it hire a night watchman in order to keep tabs on the cats.
It did, however, pony up $15,000 for a sprinkler system but it apparently did little to curb the cats' roaming. Last year, the museum installed an unsightly mesh wire atop the wall and it appears to be working satisfactorily as far as everyone except the USDA is concerned.
After having spent around $200,000 in a series of futile attempts to appease the USDA, the museum sought relief from the courts last year. On December 18th, however, United States District Court Judge K. Michael Moore, sitting in Miami, threw out the museum's lawsuit on the grounds that it first had to exhaust its administrative remedies before it could apply to the federal courts for relief.
Press reports do not spell out the details but presumably the case is now before an administrative law judge or a special master who has assigned Curtis to look into the well-being of the cats. (See mug shot of her above.)
On her web site she states, "Behavior problems constitute the number one reason dogs and cats are relinquished to shelters and/or euthanized. The reason I have chosen to work in the field of animal behavior is to try and make a difference in these statistics. I want to communicate to the public and the referring veterinary community that many if not most of a pet's behavior problems are solvable."
That is highly commendable but in this case the aberrant behavior belongs to the USDA, not the cats. Moreover, while she may be able to help the court to decide whether museum officials are fit guardians for the cats, she cannot resolve the larger legal issue. Au contraire, whether or not the AWA applies to Hemingway's cats is an issue that can only be decided by either a judge or Congress.
The administrative law judge is most likely hoping that Curtis will be able to come up with a compromise that will satisfy both parties. While that is certainly not out of the question, the fact that the USDA and the museum have been at loggerheads for so long does not bode well for an amicable resolution to this dispute. Consequently, this matter could wind up back in the federal courts where it could drag on for years.
While the museum may be stuck in the mud with its legal battle against the USDA, it is making some progress on the political front. In particular, the Key West City Commission declared earlier this month that the cats are not being exhibited and as such the museum is exempt from complying with a city ordinance that limits ownership of domestic animals to four per household.
"The cats reside on the property just as (they) did in the time of Hemingway himself. They are not on exhibition in the manner of circus animals," The Guardian quoted the commission as ruling in its July 9th edition. (See "Reprieve for Hemingway's Six-Toed Cats.") "The City Commission finds that the family of polydactyl Hemingway cats are indeed animals of historic, social and tourism significance...an integral part of the history and ambiance of the Hemingway House."
That is the only sensible and humane way to look at the situation. The USDA did not have any business getting involved in this issue in the first place. Being too lazy and derelict in its duties to go after the producers and importers of contaminated pet and human food, vivisectors, sportsmen who abuse racehorses, greyhounds, and Siberian Huskies, as well as zoos, circuses, and stage shows that feature animals, the USDA apparently thought that Hemingway's cats would be easy pickings.
To its credit, the SPCA has raised some valid concerns about the cats' welfare. In particular, at least one cat, Toby, was struck and killed by a motorist after he wandered out of the compound.
Gwen Hawtof, a former president of the organization, claims that the museum failed to properly care for a cat named Mark Twain while he was suffering from cancer. The museum has vociferously denied this charge and insists that all of its cats receive weekly visits from a local veterinarian.
Hawtof also seems to be particularly jealous of all the money that the museum is raking in at the gate as well as through its robust sale of souvenirs and other memorabilia. "These are living beings that they are making millions off of," she told the Miami Herald in the article cited supra. "We just wanted (the museum) to step up to the plate and do what's right. What bothers me is the amount of money they have spent on lawyers instead of their cats."
Since both she and Higgins seem to be so inordinately concerned with money perhaps there is more to this dispute than meets the eye. Both groups no doubt have plenty of it and want even more.
Coupled with Hawtof's envy there is also Schultz's conviction that the only good cat is a sterilized one. In particular, she harbors an especially nasty grudge against Ivan for not only being a street corner Romeo but also for helping himself to the food that she puts out for her TNR colonies. (See photo above of the feline Don Juan.) In fact, she has trapped him on at least six separate occasions.
Perhaps Curtis will be able to lay to rest all concerns regarding how the museum treats its cats. If not, this is a job for an impartial animal rights activist from outside the Key West area.
While it is possible that the museum could be neglecting the cats in favor of profits, there is not any solid evidence to support such a claim. Besides, it is in the museum's self-interest to take good care of Papa's polydactyls.
It is imperative, however, that it do a better job of safeguarding the cats from the machinations of both motorists and sterilizers like Schultz. The cats are safe so long as they remain on the grounds of the compound but the streets outside may have become too congested for them. (See photo above of one of the cats hanging out in an alley alongside the museum.)
The cats, whose lineage can be traced back to a polydactyl named Snowball that was given to Hemingway's sons way back in 1935 by a sea captain named Stanley Dexter, are an international treasure that must be preserved. Moreover, they belong at Hemingway's old haunt on Whitehead Street.
Photos: Marc Averette of Wikipedia (black cat), University of Florida (Curtis), Cammy Clark of the Miami Herald (Ivan), and Wknight94 for Wikipedia (cat in the alley).