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Court: USDA can regulate Ernest Hemingway museum’s cats

While residing in Key West in the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway received the unusual gift of a white six-toed cat named Snowball from a ship’s captain.

Hemingway fell in love with the cat, and ever since, generations of six-toed descendants of Papa’s cherished companion have resided peacefully on the grounds of Hemingway’s former home, now a museum.

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum reports that it currently houses between 40 and 50 cats.

According to a federal court ruling, however, the cats’ future at their ancestral home may now be in jeopardy.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled Friday that the Hemingway Home falls under the classification of an “animal exhibitor,” subject to regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act.

The museum’s conflict with the agency dates back to 2003, when a Hemingway Home visitor complained to the USDA about the museum’s care of the cats. In response, the USDA entered museum property and conducted an investigation into the complaint.

The agency determined that the Hemingway Home was subject to USDA regulation because it both exhibited the cats for an admission fee and used the cats in promotional advertising.

Even though the museum retains a veterinarian to care for the cats, the USDA demanded that the museum ”… obtain an exhibitor’s license; contain and cage the cats in individual shelters at night, or alternatively, construct a higher fence or an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or alternatively, hire a night watchman to monitor the cats; tag each cat for identification purposes; construct additional elevated resting surfaces for the cats within their existing enclosures; and pay fines for the Museum’s non-compliance with the AWA.”

The USDA threatened to confiscate the cats if the museum did not comply.

The Hemingway Home filed suit in federal court in 2009 to resist the USDA’s attempts to interfere with the care of the cats. But a federal district court rejected the museum’s claim and ruled for the USDA. Friday’s decision by the Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court.

The Eleventh Circuit stated that while it “appreciate[s] the Museum’s somewhat unique situation” and “sympathize[s] with its frustration,” it is nevertheless “not the court’s role to evaluate the wisdom of federal regulations implemented according to the powers constitutionally vested in Congress.”

The court found that the regulation of the cats is a federal issue, because their use in advertising draws in thousands of visitors from outside Florida, affecting interstate commerce.

Additionally, the Hemingway Home is subject to regulation by the USDA “every time it exhibits them to the public for compensation.”

There is no word yet on an appeal.

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