Living in the Washington, DC area is a lot like residing at Comedy Central.
Local and state governments are capable of stunning acts of idiocy, but for pure surreal absurdity, you gotta go to the feds. Perfect illustration: the USDA’s enduring obsession with the Hemingway cats.
That’s “USDA” as in US Department of AGRICULTURE. The agency’s name conjures visions of pigs and cows and fields of grain. So... Hemingway’s cats?
The felines in question are descendants of the furry muses who served Ernest Hemingway when he lived on the Florida island of Key West. The writer’s property is now a privately owned museum, and the cats have the run of the place. They number in the dozens, about half are polydactyl – they have extra toes, as you can see in Amy's photo of one of them above – and they are fussed over by museum staff, volunteers and visitors. Five years ago, a volunteer (who probably wishes now that she’d kept quiet) complained about the cats being allowed to roam free in the surrounding neighborhood. This is not illegal on Key West, and the neighbors hadn’t complained. Yet somehow – I wonder if anyone remembers exactly why – the federal government became involved. The USDA was deemed responsible for overseeing the lives of a bunch of privately owned housecats.
I’ve been reading and hearing about this off and on for years, and each time the subject pops up I’m astonished that the controversy is still raging. The latest update aired on CBS Evening News. Reporters turn silly when they do stories involving animals, and the CBS reporter showed no restraint. She “scratched out” the facts by “sifting through the litter.” So far, she said, the federal government has invested more than 270 work hours in its investigation of the Hemingway cats’ circumstances, and used the services of three government lawyers, four inspectors, and six veterinarians. USDA agents have made at least 14 field trips to Key West – which has to be more fun than visiting a hog farm in Iowa – and have even gone undercover to make sure they don’t miss any abuse. The USDA’s own “cat expert” has described the animals as “well cared for, healthy and content.” But the investigation trudges on, funded by the taxpayers’ dollars. The cats have their own lawyer to fight the incessant orders and demands of the USDA.
Personally, I think some of the Hemingway cats should be adopted out to struggling writers in need of inspiration. They would be putting their inherited muse genes to work and joining a long list of feline companions to the literary set. Aldous Huxley once told an aspiring author, “If you want to write, keep cats.” A multitude of prominent writers have shared his opinion. Henry James wrote with a cat on his shoulders. Dickens worked with his cat sprawled across his writing table (when she tired of muse duties, she snuffed out his candle with her paw). Samuel Johnson searched the street markets of London for oysters that would please his cat. Mark Twain wrote about cats and was often pictured with them. Colette wrote, “Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”
Those four feet aren’t always feline, of course. Many an author has been photographed for a book jacket with a loyal dog by his side. Some of these canine muses will be celebrated in New York tonight at a Writers and Their Dogs event at Symphony Space in Manhattan. The writers’ dogs will appear onstage alongside their owners. The very idea of such an event would baffle a cat. No self-respecting feline would slavishly trail along behind its human and sit silently by while that human does all the talking and receives all the applause. Unlike dogs, cats know their worth. When a cat deigns to lend its talent as a muse, the wise writer responds with lavish appreciation, a soft pad under a lamp on the desk, and, if desired, the occasional oyster.
My own perfect companions (Emma, above, and Gabriel, below) are never far away when I’m writing. They haven’t quite made up for the loss of my beloved Simon, who died last year after 17 years of faithful service, but they’re doing their best.
The Hemingway cats could launch many new careers if they were carefully paired with needy writers, and the USDA would no
longer have to worry about their welfare. The chances are, though, that the cats would object to the move and go on strike. So perhaps they should be left in peace to enjoy their lives. And perhaps the USDA should find a better way to spend our taxes.
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