In Key West, the 'Hemingway Home' battles the Feds over cats

Michael A. Morawski, chief executive of the iconic Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Florida, has spent nearly 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting the feds - all to stop them from regulating the 43 resident cats that roam the museum's grounds to the amusement of visitors. His dealings with the United States Department of Agriculture - in meetings, administrative hearings, and the courts - ended earlier this month at the Atlanta-based United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District.

He lost his appeal.

Yet he had reason for hope, because this was a rare case in which federal judges suggested the laws they were obligated to follow had produced an unjust outcome. In its unanimous decision, the three-judge panel ruled that federal authorities may regulate the 43 cats roaming the grounds of the Hemingway Home - the residence of novelist Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s, and now Key West's most popular tourist attraction. The decision reaffirmed an earlier district court ruling.

From the start, the issues for Morawski were not only about his cats but the proper role of the federal government; specifically, this was about the USDA's contention that it had the authority to regulate the Hemingway Home's felines that are thought to be decedents of Snowball -- a polydactyl cat (meaning it had extra toes) that Hemingway owned. The six-toed feline was said to be a gift from sea captain Stanley Dexter, a Hemingway friend.

Cat Fight

The USDA contended Congress gave it - not Florida or Key West -- the ultimate say regarding the cats under the Commerce Clause and Animal Welfare Act of 1966. Although the appeals court agreed, its sympathies were with Morawski and his cats. "Notwithstanding our holding, we appreciate the museum's somewhat unique situation, and we sympathize with its frustration," Chief Judge Joel Fredrick Dubina wrote earlier this month for the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit in his 13-page ruling. "Nevertheless, it is not the court's role to evaluate the wisdom of federal regulations implemented according to the powers constitutionally vested in Congress."

"I'm still dumbfound. This is overreach by the federal government," said Morawski, during an interview this week with American Thinker. Morawski said he ran up $500,000 to $600,000 in legal fees over most of the decade in his futile efforts to get the feds off his back and force it out of the cat-regulating business.

Not long after Hemingway died in 1961, his sons sold the Key West property for $80,000 to Bernice Dixon, a local jewelry store owner and Morawski's great aunt. The cats were already there, and like Snowball many of them were polydactyls. "The cats provide a link to the past," said Morawski. Some of Hemingway's sons have recalled as boys that their father had cats at his home in Cuba, not Key West; but the appeals court accepted as fact that the cats were descendants of Snowball.

Dixon turned the home into a museum in 1964, and upon her death in the late 1980s left the property to her family. The Southern colonial house - where Hemingway wrote masterpieces such as " For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" - now attracts some 250,000 people annually. Beautifully maintained, the family-run museum provides a fascinating glimpse into the writer's life in Key West. This includes the fact that Hemingway - a man's man according to the norms of his day - was a cat lover.

As for museum's cats, Morawski said neither Key West authorities nor the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have ever complained about how they were being treated; some were given away over the years, he said, but none were ever sold. The appeals court panel acknowledged as much, also noting the museum had cared for them, fed them, and provided weekly visits from a veterinarian. But nearly 10 years ago, one Key West resident contacted the USDA and raised concerns about the cats, thus setting off Morawski's battle with the feds. A USDA official investigated. Hemingway Home was subsequently classified as an "animal exhibitor" under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 - all for exhibiting its cats as part of the museum's admission fees ($13 for adults, $6 for children) and for featuring them in advertising. Under this classification, Hemingway Home's cats fell under federal control because they were regarded as being the equivalent of animal performers in circuses, zoos, and carnivals.

As Judge Dubina recounted in his ruling, the USDA then issued a number of edicts to 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 Animal Welfare Act."

To Morawski, it all ignored the nature of cats - especially the option about caging them up. "Obviously, cats are roamers. I don't know of any community that has a leash law for cats." Interestingly, the Illinois legislature did in fact adopt a state-wide leash law for cats in 1949, but Gov. Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat, vetoed the "Cat Bill" with a famous rebuke, including that lawmakers "have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency."

Morawski, for his part, initially protested the federal edicts. USDA officials then refused to issue an exhibitor's license and threatened to confiscate the museum's cats. The impasse ended when Dr. Chester A. Gipson, a USDA deputy administrator for animal care, granted an exhibitors license to the museum in 2008, without prejudicing its right to contest in court the USDA's authority to regulate its cats, which Morawski was anxious to do. "I kept wanting to get this in front of the federal court, and I had to get a license before we did that," he said.

One of the USDA's concerns was that the museum's cats might jump the 6-foot-high brick wall enclosing the property - an issue that come up during a visit by a USDA official. "She saw a cat sitting on a fence and said, 'Oh, that's a problem,'" Morawski related. So an 8-foot-tall black mesh fence was put up next to the brick wall. Morawski also registered each of his 43 cats with the USDA and made minor modifications to their abode, a "cat hotel" that resembles the Hemingway Home. Despite making changes, he said he'd rather not be dealing with federal officials regarding his cats.

During his dealings with the USDA, Morawski solicited help from Florida's U.S Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican. "She helped us and assisted us the best she could."

One issue still puzzles Morawski: How come his cats can be regulated under the Commerce Clause which, after all, is only supposed to regulate interstate commerce? "We're a local business," he pointed out. "Our goods don't go outside of Key West. So how can we be involved in interstate commerce?"

But Judge Dubina, after some erudite legal reasoning, explained that Congress can indeed regulate the museum's cats under the Commerce Clause. He wrote, "The Museum invites and receives thousands of admission-paying visitors from beyond Florida, many of whom are drawn by the Museum's reputation for and purposeful marketing of the Hemingway cats. The exhibition of the Hemingway cats is integral to the Museum's commercial purpose, and thus, their exhibition affects interstate commerce. For these reasons, Congress has the power to regulate the Museum and the exhibition of the Hemingway cats via the Animal Welfare Act."

What's next for Morawski? Getting justice in the courts has become too expensive, he said. "We're better off investing our money back into the business and employees. So I think we're probably dealing with a legislative issue now." Accordingly, he plans to enlist the help of like-minded members of Congress, starting with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, to introduce legislation that would "rein in the scope of the federal government."

So how many cat lovers are members of Congress? That may be the best indicator of whether Morawski has a fighting chance in shooing the feds away from his cats.

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