Catfight in Key West

updated 08/27/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/2007 01:00AM

As tourist sights go, the six-toed cats at Ernest Hemingway's old home in Key West, Fla., aren't exactly a thrill a minute. Yet their languid preening in the sun is part of what draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the house a year. "God bless the cats," says Key West photographer Jan Isherwood. "They make people happy."

At least for now. After complaints from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that the cats wander off the property (one was killed by a car in 2005), the future of the 47 felines—said to be descended from Hemingway's six-toed cat Snowball—is now in question. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which considers the cats one of the museum's exhibits, says they should be treated according to the Animal Welfare Act, which requires a license to display them—and perhaps cages or an electric fence to confine them. "You don't want cats getting hit by cars," says Terry Curtis, an animal behaviorist who inspected the museum in July.

But to museum staff the cats are beloved, even pampered, pets, and the sudden intervention of the feds in their lives seems like a case of bureaucratic overkill. "The same organization that has slashed funding for investigating mad cow disease continues to spend money on this," says Cara Higgins, an attorney representing the Hemingway Home. Already the museum has installed wire mesh and a misting system to keep the cats inside the fence. But if the USDA insists on cages for its cats, says museum manager Jacque Sands, "we'll give them away to good homes."

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