KEY WEST, Fla. -- For more than 40 years, they have lounged on Ernest Hemingway's bed, lolled in his garden and sipped water from the urinal he dragged home from his favorite saloon, delighting tourists from around the world.
But now the nearly 50 cats at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, about half of which bear a sixth toe on their front paws, are felines non grata - scofflaws who, the federal government says, must be caged, kept under guard or removed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the author's one-time home in Key West needs a license to exhibit the descendants of the original polydactyl, or extra-toed, cat he is said to have received from a ship captain in the 1930s.
Without the license, the USDA contends, the museum is violating the Animal Welfare Act and is subject to a daily fine of $200 per cat - nearly $10,000 a day. But unless it contains the cats, the museum can't get a license.
"They're operating illegally," said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers. "They don't have an exhibitors' license. An exhibitor is anyone that exhibits animals to the public that we would regulate. This would include zoos, circuses and magicians or anyone who uses animals in their acts or in their advertisements."
The Hemingway Home clearly features its world-famous felines in its brochures and on its Web site, but the managers insist that the law applies only to animals bought or sold in commerce. Their cats, they say, are merely residents of the house that, like their ancestors, were born and will die on the property.
"They're not on exhibit there. They live there," said museum CEO Mike Morawski, whose great-aunt purchased the Hemingway house after the author's 1961 suicide in Idaho. "Visitors enjoy the links to history, and we talk about the Hemingway cats just like we talk about his wives and his pool."
Taking their cat fight to court, museum officials asked a federal judge last month to decide whether the animal welfare law applies to the museum and, if so, to rule that the six-foot brick wall Hemingway erected in 1937 meets the "containment" requirements for exhibition animals.
"It's beyond insane," said Cara Higgins, the museum's lawyer. "This is the same agency that quit researching mad-cow disease because of money, yet they have no problem investigating the activities of the Hemingway cats."
That sentiment is widespread in Key West, a town that takes its cats seriously, dressing them up for Easter parades and displaying their visages in books and gallery windows. None, though, are more treasured than the Hemingway house cats.
"What a joke," said innkeeper Tom Coward, who is still miffed that two government agents rented a room overlooking the Hemingway property to videotape the cats. "With all the other problems we have, I think it's just plain silly."
Rogers would not say what prompted the investigation by the USDA, which had never visited the museum or questioned the care of its feline population in its first 39 years of operation. The museum opened in 1964.
But that changed in October 2003, when a USDA veterinarian arrived for a random visit and advised museum officials that they needed an exhibitor license. For the next three years, Morawski said, the museum tried to meet the USDA's changing demands, even attempting to herd its cats.
They tried shock collars. They cut trees and installed a mesh ledge and $15,000 misting system around the brick wall. But nothing worked. A few felines still managed to cat around, drawing the attention of the Key West Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
According to a USDA report, the society has trapped and impounded the same Hemingway cat, a 2-year-old tom named Ivan, five times since January.
Today, Ivan is often confined to a cage, and museum officials blame the nonprofit organization, which promotes spaying and neutering of all cats and dogs, for his predicament - and for the USDA's sudden interest.
Morawski said he supports spaying and neutering, too. But the museum usually keeps two cats of each gender intact to perpetuate the Hemingway line, sterilizing them after they've produced a litter. Today, Ivan is the only non-neutered adult on the property.
And that, he said, has displeased society officials, particularly Vice President Deborah Schultz, who lives nearby. Neither Schultz nor other SPCA officials returned repeated calls seeking comment.
"She thought we should be getting our polydactyls from the SPCA," Morawski said. "There were enough around."
Cats have been prevalent in Key West since the 1850s, when the nation's southernmost city was a major port. Every boat hauling goods from the Gulf to the northeast stopped by, and most had cats on board, preferably the six-toed variety. Sailors thought they not only brought good luck at sea but were better rat-catchers.
Hemingway's infatuation with the six-toed creatures would turn them into icons, making them synonymous with his name. Today, their descendants attract a sizable number of cat lovers to the two-story Spanish colonial home on Whitehead Street, where the Pulitzer Prize winner lived with his second wife, Pauline, for nine years.
"A lot of people say, 'I don't need the tour. I just came to see the cats,'" said guide David Gonzales.
Charles Anton could only shake his head as he strolled the grounds, searching for hidden cats. "These are Hemingway's cats," the electronics technician from California said. "They're part of history."
Maya Bell writes for the Orlando Sentinel.