Why Is a Federal Appeals Court Talking About Cats?


The recently 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a much-publicized ruling about cats. But these aren’t just any felines, they are the descendants of a six-toed cat given to Earnest Hemingway in 1935.

While a legal dispute over cats may seem trivial at first blush, it actually involves some weighty legal issues, including the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The cats reside at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida, where they are fed and cared for by Museum staff. Since Hemingway was first given “Snowball” during the time he lived at the former home, its progeny have thrived and populated the property. The current total stands at 44 cats. The cats are a prominent part of the Museum tour and are featured in gift shop merchandise and promotional literature.

Several years ago, a Museum visitor complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the Museum’s care of the cats. USDA inspectors responded by visiting the Museum and ultimately sought to oversee the care of the cats under the Animal Welfare Act. In addition to obtaining an exhibitor’s license, the agency required the Museum to implement a number of changes, including caging the cats in individual shelters at night, or alternatively, constructing a higher fence or an electric wire atop the existing brick wall or hiring a night watchman to monitor the cats. The Museum has resisted the federal government’s attempts to regulate the Hemingway cats, appealing all the way to the 11th Circuit.

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