Back in July, I reported on a dispute between federal and local authorities as to who had jurisdiction over the descendants of Ernest Hemingway's mutant six-toed cat. (See Legal Battle Rages Over Future of Hemingway's Mutant Cats, July 19, 2007.) I'm pleased to say it's back in the news.
An allegedly disgruntled former volunteer seems to have complained to the Department of Agriculture that the cats, which have roamed the grounds of Hemingway's former home for the past 40 years or so, were not being treated properly. This caused the USDA to spring into action. (Did they ever find that guy who mailed the anthrax? Maybe I missed it.) The USDA argued that the cats were "on exhibit" and so needed the protection of federal laws that apply to zoos and circuses. Attorneys for the Hemingway Home and Museum attorneys have said the cats are just fine and that they are local cats, not a federal concern. "They're not sold, they're not transferred, they're not moved, they're not disrupted, they're not eaten," said Cara Higgins, representing the museum and in charge of listing things not being done to the cats. "I can't imagine," she continued, "why the USDA, why the federal government, would have an interest in a handful of local cats." Or the power to do anything about it, unless the cats are somehow involved in interstate commerce. (It's a National Historic Landmark, but still.)
But the USDA wanted the cats rounded up and caged every night, said another HH&M representative, Mike Morawski, despite the fact that they have been free-range felines all their lives. "Our vet," said Morawski, "who comes on the property weekly, thought [the caging would be] extremely traumatic for any of our cats, much less the cats that have lived on this property the last 10 to 15 years of their life." More traumatic: being the intern whose job it is to round up 40 six-toed, 24-clawed cats every night and force them all into cages.
In July, the Feds were considering sending a cat inspector over there from the University of Florida to make sure everything was okay. According to a recent CBS News report, the university's cat expert found that the animals were in fact "well cared for, healthy and content." But according to the report, the battle continues.
CBS attempted to estimate how many federal tax dollars have been spent in the government's attempts to police cat conditions in Key West, but the USDA would not respond to its requests for information. CBS was able to determine that the dispute, which has been pending in one way or another for five years, has involved at least 270 person-hours by three government lawyers, four inspectors, six veterinarians, and 14 field trips by one or more USDA personnel to Key West, during some of which the agents actually went undercover. "They pose as tourists and get pictures and surreptitiously tape the cats," said Higgins.
Pictures and video of Hemingway Home & Museum and its cats are available by going to the museum's website, but you probably can get better shots undercover.
Has all this been a little silly? CBS asked Morawski. "It's been a lot silly."