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).”