11 Facts About Hemingway's Cats

Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

When the eminently quotable Ernest Hemingway wrote that “one cat just leads to another,” the lifelong ailurophile was talking about the veritable clowder of cats at Finca, his home in Cuba—but he could easily have been referencing his home in Key West, Florida. The grounds of 907 Whitehead Street, now the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, house between 40 and 50 felines. (“Cats in every room so don’t go if you are allergic to them,” one reviewer on TripAdvisor notes.) Here are a few things you should know about them.

1. About half of Hemingway's cats are polydactyl.

That means that they have extra toes. Cats normally have five toes in the front and four in the back; according to the Hemingway House and Museum website, “about half of the cats at the museum have the physical polydactyl trait but they all carry the polydactyl gene in their DNA, which means that the ones that have four and five toes can still mother or father six-toed kittens. Most cats have extra toes on their front feet and sometimes on their back feet as well. Sometimes it looks as if they are wearing mittens because they appear to have a thumb on their paw.”

2. The gene that gives Hemingway's cats extra toes is named after a video game character.

The reason the cats have extra toes, according to Kat Arney in the book Herding Hemingway’s Cats, is “a mistake in the control switch for a gene called Sonic Hedgehog. And yes, it was named after the video-game character.”

Arney writes that two German scientists coined the name after noticing fruit fly maggots with a gene expression were “unusually stumpy and covered in bristles,” so they “picked a name for the gene to reflect what these unfortunate creatures looked like: hedgehogs.” In the ‘90s, three types of the hedgehog gene were found in mammals; the third was named by Bob Riddle, who dubbed it Sonic after the hedgehog in his daughter’s comic book.

3. Hemingway’s first polydactyl cat was named Snow White (or Snowball)—or so the story goes.

In her book Hemingway’s Cats, Carlene Fredericka Brennen writes that Hemingway’s son, Patrick, said in an interview that his father never had a cat in Key West. Later, a neighbor wrote that “his family had several polydactyl cats, possibly some of the forebears of the cats in Key West now known as the famed ‘Hemingway’s Cats.’”

But according to The Hemingway House and Museum website, Hemingway received a six-toed white feline from the captain of a ship, and some of the cats at Hemingway’s Key West house are descended from that cat. A 1985 article in the Fort Lauderdale News quoted a guest relating that a guide had told him, “Ernest met this sea captain at Sloppy Joe’s Bar one night and the two of them got drunk and then the sea captain gave Ernest a multi-toed cat off his ship.”

4. Hemingway’s cats have creative names.

The Hemingway House and Museum website notes that Hemingway named all of his cats after famous people, a tradition the curators continue today. Over the years, cats have been named after everyone from Zane Grey and Marilyn Monroe to president “Hairy” Truman, Fats Waller, Kermit “Shine” Forbes, Truman Capote, Bugsy Siegel, Billie Holiday, and Cary Grant. Tour guide Jessica Pita told radio host Arden Moore that employees vote on the names.

5. All of the cats at Hemingway’s house are born there.

Pita told Moore, “All the cats here were born here.” To control the population, “each female is allowed one litter; we keep a tom cat around to handle business, and then they’re fixed. We keep between 40 and 50. When Hemingway was here, there was … who knows. Sometimes reports of over 70, 80 cats.”

6. Hemingway’s cats receive annual check-ups.

Those who are concerned about the welfare of the cats shouldn’t worry: They’re well taken care of. In fact, their vet, Dr. Edie Clark, comes to the museum once a week to check up on the cats and perform “routine procedures such as ear mite treatment, flea spraying, and worming,” as well as annual vaccinations, according to the museum's website.

7. Hemingway’s cats were the subject of a federal complaint.

The five-year battle kicked off in 2003, after a visitor—who was concerned about the cats’ welfare—filed a complaint with the federal government, according to NPR. The USDA claimed the museum was exhibiting the cats without the proper license (which it wouldn’t have been able to qualify for anyway—the license requires animals be enclosed). Employees of the Hemingway House claimed that the USDA sent undercover agents to “pose as tourists and get pictures and surreptitiously tape the cats,” according to CBS.

The agency threatened to fine the museum $200 per cat per day (or $10,000) or to remove the cats from the premises, and the museum eventually asked a federal court to intervene. Eventually, an animal behaviorist not affiliated with the museum or the USDA suggested that the cats—which appeared to be well cared for—be allowed to stay if a special fence was installed. The museum agreed, and the cats got to stay.

8. One of Hemingway’s cats was “jailed.”

In 2016, Martha Gellhorn—not the war correspondent who was Hemingway’s third wife, but the gray tabby named after her—nipped at a tourist (who apparently didn’t know how to decipher cat body language) and found herself behind bars at the vet’s office. “It was the first time ever and the woman was aggressive with the cat,” the home’s manager told the Miami Herald. “They are pets. We have 32 employees who consider them five-day-a-week pets.” After a 10-day quarantine, Martha was returned to the museum. Her jailers had dubbed her “a sweetheart.”

9. Catnip can cause problems for Hemingway's cats.

“Actually, catnip is a problem for us,” Pita told Moore. “People want to being catnip here and play with the cats, but when there’s 45, two of them want to go for the same cat thing. It can cause a little tussle.” The guide advised not bringing any catnip or treats, because the cats are on a particular diet. “We ask, don’t pick up the cats, but they’re free for your petting,” she said, “and most of the cats, if you sit on a bench they will take to your lap, and of course that’s cool with us.”

10. Hemingway’s cats survived Hurricane Irma.

A full evacuation of the Florida Keys was ordered when Hurricane Irma approached the islands in 2017, but 10 employees insisted on staying behind with the cats. “When we started to round up the cats to take them inside, some of them actually ran inside knowing it was time to take shelter,” curator Dave Gonzales told MSNBC. “Sometimes I think they’re smarter than the human beings.”

The employees and the 54 cats rode out the storm, "The cats are accustomed to our voices and our care. We love them, they love us. We all hung out together," Gonzales said. The museum’s thick limestone walls kept them all nice and cool, and they had generators, food, water, and medical supplies on hand.

11. Hemingway’s cats are laid to rest on the museum’s grounds.

According to the Herald-Tribune, when Hemingway’s cats pass away, they’re laid to rest in the gardens behind the house. “The burial spots are marked with concrete gravestones crudely etched with the names of now-deceased felines, some named for celebrities: Willard Scott, who died at age 12 in 1988; Kim Novak, who was 22 when she passed in 1997; and Gremlin (1986-2005).”

5 Ways You Can Help the Jaguar Rescue Center Save Costa Rica’s Wildlife

A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
Jaguar Rescue Center

In 2005, Catalonian primatologist Encar Garcia and her husband, Italian herpetologist Sandro Alviani, were living in southwestern Costa Rica when locals began to bring them injured animals in hopes that the two experts could save them. As word spread and more animals arrived, their property slowly transformed into a full-fledged rescue center. So they purchased the surrounding land and named their new organization the Jaguar Rescue Center (JRC), after one of their early rescues: a young, orphaned jaguar whose mother had been killed by farmers.

Today, the center covers nearly 5.5 acres of land near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica’s Limón province. It can accommodate around 160 animals at a time, and is home to everything from spider monkeys to sea turtles (though, by law, staff members aren’t allowed to accept domesticated animals like cats and dogs).

While locals still bring injured and orphaned animals to the JRC, others are brought by tourists, the Ministry of Environment and Energy, the National Animal Health Service, and even the police, who confiscate animals that have been poached or illegally kept as pets.

howler monkey at jaguar rescue center
Skye, a young howler monkey who recovered from electrocution.
Jaguar Rescue Center

The rescues are often victims of road accidents, animal attacks, environmental destruction, human interaction, or electrocution from exposed power lines. After the animals are rehabilitated, they’re released into La Ceiba Natural Reserve, a human-free (except for JRC workers) part of the forest where they can safely reacclimate to living in the wild. The JRC has cameras installed in the area to monitor the animals after their release and make sure they’re finding enough food.

Unfortunately, not all the creatures brought to the JRC recover from their injuries—in 2019, for example, 311 of the 749 rescues died [PDF]—so JRC staff members and volunteers understand just how remarkable it is to watch an animal regain its health and be successfully returned to its natural environment.

“There are so many amazing things about working for the JRC, but I think we all can agree that seeing a rescued animal make it through rehabilitation and be released is the best and most rewarding part of the job,” Torey, a JRC tour guide, tells Mental Floss.

Some thought-to-be-orphaned sloths are even released right back into the arms of their mothers. After recording the cries of a baby sloth, JRC staff will take the sloth back to wherever it was first found, play the recording, and wait for the mother to recognize the cries and (slowly) climb down from her leafy abode to reunite with her child.

Despite its partnerships with government agencies, the JRC doesn’t receive government funding. Instead, it relies on public donations and revenue from its visitor services. Find out more about how you can help below.

1. Donate money.

You can make a one-time or monthly donation that will go toward food, medical care, and supplies for the animals, or you can donate specifically to the JRC’s “Shock Free Zone” program, which insulates power lines and transformers that run through forests to prevent them from electrocuting wildlife.

2. Donate items.

Check out the JRC’s Amazon wish list to see which items are most needed—and what they’ll be used for, too. Examples include Pampers diapers for baby monkeys, snake hooks for safely rescuing snakes, and cans of worms to feed birds, opossums, and bats.

One of the most important products on the list is powdered goat’s milk, which staff members use to feed orphans of many mammalian species at the JRC.

“It has the most universally digestible enzyme compared to other milk,” Torey says. “Unfortunately, we do not have sloth milk, monkey milk, etc. readily available for the baby animals.”

3. “Adopt” an animal.

diavolino, a margay at the jaguar rescue center
Diavolino, the Jaguar Rescue Center's "feisty little margay."
Jaguar Rescue Center

For $105, you can virtually “adopt” an animal at the JRC. Choices range from Diavolino, a “feisty little margay” rescued from the illegal pet trade, to Floqui, a whitish two-fingered sloth who was born with only one digit on each hand and foot.

4. Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center.

You can stay overnight at the JRC in one of its three visitor residences—La Ceiba House, Ilán Ilán House, or one of the Jaguar Inn bungalows—which offer a variety of amenities, restaurant service, and access to nearby beaches.

Whether or not you’re staying there, you can book a tour of the JRC, where you’ll get to explore the premises and even meet some of the animals. There are private, public, nighttime, and VIP tours, and you can find out more here.

5. Volunteer at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

If you’re looking for a more hands-on, potentially life-changing way to help Costa Rica’s wildlife, you can apply for the JRC’s four-week volunteer program or a position at La Ceiba Natural Reserve that lasts three to six months.

According to the website, JRC volunteers are housed in the Jaguar Inn and help with “a broad range of tasks, from doing the dishes and cleaning up after the animals ... to building and remodeling enclosures, or babysitting a new arrival to ease the stress of their new environment.”

La Ceiba volunteers, on the other hand, stay right on the reserve and do everything from monitoring captive and recently released animals to keeping the trails clear.

Find out more about becoming a volunteer here.

YouTube Star Coyote Peterson Brings 'Misunderstood' Animals to His New Animal Planet Series

Animal Planet
Animal Planet

As host of the popular YouTube series Brave Wilderness, Coyote Peterson is no stranger to going face-to-face with creatures many deem terrifying—think great white sharks and pit vipers—but that he says are simply "misunderstood."

Animals have always been a big part of Peterson's life, even before he made a career out of being stung and bitten by ferocious critters. The Ohio native studied video production and directing at Ohio State University, and then decided to combine his two passions—film and all things wild—to teach viewers about wildlife and the importance of conservation. His YouTube channel currently has more than 15 million subscribers.

Now Peterson is embarking on a new adventure with Animal Planet in the show Brave the Wild. He'll travel all over the world with wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa and his crew, sharing creatures that aren't often in the spotlight and that viewers may find a little frightening. He recently chatted with Mental Floss about the importance of conservation, his thing for snapping turtles, and his close encounter with a jaguar and her three cubs.

You’ve said your love of animals started with snapping turtles. Can you talk about the first time you saw one and what about them fascinated you so much?

The first snapping turtle I caught was when I was only 8 years old. I was always fascinated with turtles, because at first glance they look prehistoric, almost dinosaur-like. Growing up in Ohio, I never got to see any "exotic" animals. My favorite thing to watch on TV was Steve Irwin. Watching him wrestle crocs is what inspired me to catch my first snapping turtle, the most dangerous animal Ohio has to offer.

Coyote Peterson with a gigantic snapping turtle
Animal Planet

In Brave the Wild, you introduce animals that are often feared or misunderstood. What's the importance in exposing viewers to these creatures?

One of my goals through this series was to inspire people to overcome their fears of these seemingly dangerous animals and learn to admire them from a safe distance. The more you understand these creatures, the less you are afraid of them. One of the messages I try to convey in every episode is the importance of conservation.

What’s the most "misunderstood" creature you've encountered?

The most misunderstood creature that comes to mind is the carpet shark, which we filmed in season one. As I always say, people’s biggest fears are the three S’s (sharks, snakes and spiders). The carpet shark is found off the coast of Australia. They only bite humans in the case of mistaken identity. To some of these sharks a person’s foot might look like a fish. Any time you enter a new environment you need to be aware of what you need to look for, not only to keep yourself safe, but the animal as well.

What goes into preparing for each encounter to make sure you and the animals come out alive?

With any new expedition, you need to come into the environment knowing exactly what to expect. When encountering a new animal, I try to stay as calm as I can and have no hesitation. If I stay calm, the animal stays calm, [and] I'm creating a safer interaction for myself. I use different tactics when I encounter different animals. It also depends on whether the environment is land or in water.

How do you keep your composure on camera when you're in a potentially dangerous situation?

Any situation I find myself in, I look at it as my job. For example, I would be afraid operating a crane, because that is something I don't do. If it's part of your job, it's something that you get used to. When I do my job, I make sure I'm focused and never hesitate. Before I encounter any animal, I know what I'm going to say to the camera. I say that, for the best show, we always need to have the camera rolling so the audience can see what is happening.

Coyote Peterson with a kangaroo
Animal Planet

You were in Australia filming Brave the Wild during bushfire season. What was that like?

Visiting Australia was one of the best experiences I had filming the show. Australia is a fascinating country that has so many unique environments. We spent over 50 days in Australia and encountered more than 35 different species. We were there right before all these devastating fires started, and we got to witness the severity of the drought and all the different animals it impacted.

What was your favorite animal encounter in upcoming series?

Each encounter I have in the wild is special. I would have to say that the most exciting moment for me was when we were filming in Brazil and I saw a jaguar and three of her cubs up close. Not only did I get to see this in real life, but my amazing team was able to capture this special moment on tape. It is just so amazing seeing these animals survive and thrive in the wild while dealing with not only the dangers of the wild but human encroachment as well. Hands down, this was my favorite episode that we got to film.

Catch new episodes of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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