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The plot thickens for Hemingway's cats

Literary legend's six-toed legacies live on in Key West � much to the dismay of some. The fight over the felines has grown to

include the USDA and the courts.

The legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West for a decade in the 1930s, in a stone mansion on Whitehead Street with his wife, Pauline, and a six-toed cat named Snowball.

Hemingway divorced Pauline in 1939, but Snowball stayed on. Today, about 50 of Snowball's descendants roam the grounds, to the delight of many tourists who visit the Hemingway Home and Museum. But the cats won't be roaming much longer, if the federal government has its way.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the museum for violating a 1966 federal animal welfare law, and has threatened to impose stiff fines or confiscate the cats if the Hemingway Home does not do more to control the felines. Department inspectors say that the museum must be licensed as an exhibitor of animals, and that the cats, which sometimes climb over the wall surrounding the grounds, must be confined to the property.

After initially moving to comply with the government's demands, the Hemingway Home now is fighting them. The dispute has festered into one of those big-government-vs.-the-little-guy showdowns that involves a growing cast of characters, including locals in Key West, members of Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior and, last week, a federal judge.

In an effort to resolve the spat, the museum sued last July in federal court and asked a judge to determine whether the USDA has jurisdiction over the museum. On Dec. 18, U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore dismissed the museum's suit, saying that it first should pursue remedies in administrative hearings and appeals.

Darby Halladay, a USDA spokesman, says the agency will schedule a hearing before an administrative law judge.

"There's always a possibility of confiscation," he says of the cats. "The likelihood of that occurring, I can't state. But that is a remedy."

The museum also could face thousands of dollars in fines.

Cara Higgins, the museum's attorney, says that the federal Animal Welfare Act, which sets care standards for animals in zoos and circus acts, should not apply to the Hemingway Home.

The cats "are born and raised and live their lives in Key West," she says. "They've been doing so for over 40 years. They're not sold, they're not distributed, they're not taken across state lines."

The dispute began when a USDA inspector showed up at the museum in October 2003 in response to a complaint about the cats.

Long negotiations and multiple inspections ensued. The USDA suggested several methods for containing the cats, including hiring a night watchman, adding an electrified wire to the top of the property's 6-foot stone wall, or adding to the stone wall, which Hemingway had built in 1937.

The museum countered that a wire could shock tourists as well as cats, and that altering the wall would put at risk the house's designation by the Interior Department as a National Historic Place.

At the height of the USDA's investigation of the museum, the agency rented a room in a guesthouse near the Hemingway property in order to videotape the cats.

In a report of one inspection, on Dec. 1, 2004, the USDA noted that "during the inspection, a cat was seen scaling the fence and leaving the property." Another report cited the death of a cat named Toby, which had been fatally struck by a car after leaving the property.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who represents Key West, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, calling for a compromise over the Hemingway cats. Ros-Lehtinen, noted that "this extraordinary museum serves as an essential bond to past and revered American culture."

The Hemingway Home flunked three inspections. When the USDA declined to grant it a license, the museum sued to try to avoid having to get a federal license.

The Hemingway Home is one of Key West's most-visited attractions. Although Hemingway wrote most of his novels in Key West, including To Have and Have Not and A Farewell to Arms, Higgins says many tourists come just to see the cats.

Key West is known as much for its cats as it is for its zany festivals and eccentric charm. Located 159 miles from Miami and 90 miles from Havana, it is the southernmost point in the continental USA. Cats arrived in Key West long ago with visiting sea captains, who employed them as shipboard rat catchers. Today, cats wander Key West.

The neighbor who complained about the Hemingway cats is Debbie Schultz, a former official at the local animal shelter who lives four doors away from the museum.

"I contacted the USDA," Schultz says. The museum "made it appear I am the villain, that I am out to undermine everything they stand for in cats, which is absurd. My whole thing is the cats need to be cared for properly."

Much of the dispute revolves around the wanderings of Ivan, an orange tomcat born in 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan killed dozens of people in the Caribbean and the USA. According to Schultz, Ivan the cat wreaks another type of havoc on the cat population that lived outside the museum wall.

She says Ivan often stops by a feeding station she keeps for neighborhood cats. Schultz says she took Ivan to the animal shelter six times. Higgins says the museum had to "bail him out," each time.

"I saw Ivan many times loose," she says. "Ivan is a very unneutered, very macho male cat, and in each case, he had one of the street cats pinned down," she says. "We have an ordinance that says a nuisance cat can be removed."

When Schultz first moved in, she was on friendly terms with the museum and had a key to the museum grounds. Schultz helped trap street cats, have them neutered and then returned to the neighborhood. She says after consulting with one of the museum officials, she began taking the Hemingway cats in to be neutered or spayed. She says she thought she was performing a service.

Instead, she says she eventually was told that she was persona non grata and that if she didn't leave the museum property, the police would be called. Higgins says Schultz's neutering and spaying had left the museum with almost no cats to propagate the bloodline.

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