The Case of the Six-Toed Cats

Ernest Hemingway is a man of mythic proportions. He is almost as well known for his personal exploits as for his literary accomplishments.  His home on Key West figures prominently in the legend of Hemingway.  It was there, in the 1930s, that he wrote some of his most celebrated work and earned the famous moniker, “Papa”.  Today, the house operates as the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum offering tours and the occasional wedding.  The house contains the furniture he and his family used and looks much as it did when Hemingway last visited before his death in 1961.   One of the more unique features of the house is a living link to history – the six-toed cats.

harry truman npr

Harry Truman at the Hemingway Home. Image via NPR 

As of late, the cats have found themselves the subject of a federal court case. The result of the case could effect the historic integrity of the property and the authenticity of the experience.

The story goes that Hemingway befriended a sea captain with a polydactyl cat named Snowball that Hemingway took a shining to. When the captain left Key West, he gifted the six toed feline to Hemingway. Soon the Hemingway’s were host to a pack (a herd?) of cats which roamed the house and property freely.  These days about 40 or 50 cats live at the Hemingway Home, many of which are direct descendents of Snowball and have the tell tale sign- six toes. They still have free reign of the house and property and drink from Hemingway’s famous DIY-urinal fountain, just as they did when Hemingway was in residence. Hemingway and his family had a habit of naming the cats after famous people, and the museum carries on the tradition naming the cats after presidents and such.


The Hemingway House and Museum. Image via Wikipedia. 

Over the years, the cats have become an integral part of the Hemingway House experience.  Tours include the story of Snowball and the urinal fountain, and the cats themselves- they’re everywhere! They’re in the garden, in the house, and on the veranda where Hemingway wrote. For a lot of people, the cats are the most fascinating aspect of the tour and the one they talk about most. The cats are a cuddly, purring remnant of Hemingway’s eccentricity.  Because of their legendary lineage they feel like an artifact or an historic element of the house. (Dare I say, they are historiCats? And that it would be a CATastrophe if they were to be removed from the museum?)


Hemingway with sons Patrick (left) and Gregory (right) with kittens in Finca Vigia, Cuba. Image via Wikipedia 

All puns aside (unless of course you all would like me to continue, I have a million!  They are in a CATegory all on their own, and  are pawsitively essential to the museum because they are a purrecious asset… ok, ok, I’m done. For real.)

About a decade ago, a museum goer worried that the cats were not well cared for.  She took her concern about the welfare of the cats at the museum all the way to the the Department of Agriculture. Under the guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act, DOA inspectors recommended that the museum, “confine the cats in individual cages each night, or construct a higher fence around the property, or install an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or hire a night watchman to keep an eye on the cats.”

Bypassing the discussion about whether or not these measures would make for happier/healthier cats and the technicalities of the case, which has been dragging on for years (check out Warren Richey’s article in the Christian Science Monitor for more info on the specifics),  the recommendations made by the inspectors could effect the historic integrity and experience of the museum.


Hemingway’s writing desk and a black cat. Image via Wikipedia 

Obviously, the museum was given options that are not invasive, like the security guard (who would presumably spend his evenings shepherding the six-toed cats so that they can’t leave the 1 acre property), but a few of the recommendations would dramatically alter the appearance of the grounds (for example, the construction of a taller fence).  If the museum is forced to comply with the recommendations in the future, I’m certain they will choose the least obtrusive methods.  However, implementing any of the measures  will be expensive – security guards earn salaries, 40-50 cages  add up in quickly, fences cost more than they should (as anyone who has ever visited a home improvement store knows), and adding an electric wire would have to be done only after extensive research to insure the bricks are not damaged and the wire is not noticeable and then there is the electric bill.  Every option would be an ongoing expense with maintenance costs.


Cat drinking from urinal-cum-fountain. Image via Now Public 

House museums are notoriously underfunded and struggle staying in the red. I have no personal knowledge of the Hemingway House’s finances, but the implementation of any of these measures will cost the museum precious funds – funds that would have been spent on maintenance of the house and grounds (no small expense in humid and hurricane prone Key West), conservation of the collection,  staff, training  exhibitions, and developing museum tours and content.  Currently, the cats are cared for by a local veterinarian and are well-loved by the staff and guests. To date, there have been no reports of the actual abuse or neglect of any of Hemingway’s cats.

What do you all think about this case? Can you think of any alternatives that would secure the cats without a dramatic visual impact to the grounds?

Update:  After hearing about the Hemingway Home’s trouble with the feds, Purr-fect Fence (another pun!) donated 700 ft of fence to the museum.  Mike Morawski, CEO of the Hemingway Home and Museum said the following:

“How the fence blended in with the surroundings was extremely important to us. The fantastic thing about the product is its extremely low visual impact. It is hard to see at all unless you are standing right in front of it.”

Purr-fect Fence is a great solution because not only does it have low visual impact, but it is also easy to remove without damaging the historic grounds.  It remains to be seen if the installation of Purr-fect Fence will be approved by the DOA.  The case is ongoing.


Update 2: I have it on good authority that a group of cats is called a “glaring.”  How appropriate!  Thanks, Amanda!



  1. amandaisforhp

    Fantastic story! I am all about the cats being well-cared for but I dare say these cats probably have it better than many in this world. Those cats have thrived there for years, someone needs to mind their own business! 🙂 Although, the cats are one of the major draws for tourists so maybe a part of the profit (if there is any) could be thrown their way in the form of a kitty condo placed unobtrusively somewhere on the property.

    • bricksandmortarpreservation

      I was talking with one of my coworkers about the case, and she said that when she visited last year they had all sorts of elevated sleeping nooks all over the house and grounds for them. I guess the Hemingways created them, I’m not sure. I would say those cats are fat and happy.

      I did read that the neighborhood is full of free roaming chickens and roosters though – I bet they are sad to not be able to terrorize them anymore!

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