Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The USDA and Papa's Pussycats

Sandra Parshall

(Photo by Amy Brigham)

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.

Now, what you've been waiting for: Tell us about your cat!


Rosemary Harris said...

Jeez, now I want a cat. My dog Max is wonderful, but he rarely helps me find that perfect word or phrase...

Lorraine Bartlett said...

We stopped cancer treatments for our cat Betsy three weeks ago (after one terrible weekend when we thought for sure she wouldn't make it through the night) and boy has she perked up! She's still skinny as a rail, but she's eating well and doing all the Betsy things she stopped doing while she was being treated.

This isn't going to last, but as long as she's happy and purring--we're happy, too.

Sheila Connolly said...

I have three cats, and the eldest, who we believe is twenty, is declining slowly. But she's still happy--gums her food with gusto, and purrs when I pick her up. We honor her by cleaning up her messes and making her last years comfortable.

In my glassblower series, my editor wanted dogs. Two. Two different breeds, neither of which I was familiar with. I coped. But I'm putting a cat in the second series!

As for that perfect word, once my middle cat Felix walked across my laptop. I looked at the screen and he had typed "mew". True story.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I don't doubt Felix's typing skill for a second.

My darling Simon always slept on a pad under my desk lamp, and when I was distressed because my writing wasn't going well, he would give me a long, assessing look, then get up and move to my lap. If nothing else, he calmed me down. I recently read about a study that proved petting an animal can lower human blood pressure significantly. Simon was wise enough to know this intuitively.

Lorraine, enjoy these days with Betsy. Remember every moment.

Carol said...

Spenser and Taco read today's blog with great interest -- and a deep sense of injury. Why, they wonder, do THEY not receive oysters for muse duties? After all, it appears that Emma and Gabriel do all their work lounging under a warm lamp, whereas they themselves perform extra functions. Such as pacing in front of the screen so that I'm forced to stop and reconsider my word choices. And providing momentum for action scenes by scattering my pages on their mad dash to the windowsill and, once there, chattering loudly to the birds. Spenser even swipes me with a restraining claw when I've bored him.

Not that they've tasted oysters, but the sound is so agreeably squishy that they are demanding them as part of a compensation package. Since this is all their Aunt Sandy's fault, I'm expecting her to jet them a dozen oysters once a week.

Julia Buckley said...

I have three cats, Sandra! I can't quite believe it, but we indulged in two kittens this summer (I was feeling down, and kittens seemed the solution). :)

Now our house is a playland. These little ones play all day, and they rarely need human companionship. Their favorite things to do are to bother the fish (poor guy), knock down knick-knacks, ambush one another, torment our older cat (who loves them, but hates them too), chase each other, run from the dog, and play with toys. I think I could learn a lesson from them about being carefree.


Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, I've found that kittens are the solution to just about everything. Let them enjoy their youth -- they have years of hard work as muses ahead of them.

Carol, Spenser and Taco are relentlessly pushing you toward action-oriented noir. Perhaps they know best where your true talents lie. Emma keeps urging me to add more romance.

Kaye George said...

Well, I want to know what's so special about ole Hemingway's cats. Shouldn't ALL writers' cats get USDA vet visits, and lawyers.

I think Agamemnon deserves this!

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, I think federal involvement in your cat's life is something you'll want to avoid. The USDA has tried to restrict the Hemingway cats' activities, and you KNOW how cats feel about that. They even ordered the museum staff to round all the cats up at night and put them in cages. The cats' personal vet said they were traumatized by this treatment. Our tax dollars at work -- traumatizing pussycats.

Christine said...

I have 2 kitties, Zander, a grumpy old man at three years, and Ky, the striped kitten that made Zander the grumpy old man that he is. When I'm writing, Zander usually relaxes a few feet away, while Ky knows that it must be time to play and be as distracting as possible. I must be an awful kitty-mommy, because I often close the door to the library when I'm writing so that the kitten can go play somewhere else. Or maybe the act of closing the door is one of those subliminal mind tricks to get me into the writing mood. Hmm. Maybe Ky is a muse after all.

A Paperback Writer said...

I would love to be inspired by birds (particularly quail) and squirrels flitting about the trees in my yard.
Unfortunately, the neighbors two houses up have 2 incredibly stupid cats (who are not too stupid to catch birds) and the immediate neighbors on either side each have 2 huge, loud dogs that bark and poop incessantly.
I assure you that the LAST thing I want is to add another hairy distraction to the list of what I have to deal with already. If you have a cat, fine. Be inpired by it at your own desk, but I'll thank you to keep your allergin-carrying critters for your own desk ornaments. (oh, and if anyone would care to steal my neighbors' animals and keep them far away somewhere, I'd be thrilled.)

Sandra Parshall said...

Paperback Writer, you should try petting a cat -- studies have shown that it lowers the blood pressure markedly! :-)

Clea Simon said...

I love the idea of cat grants to struggling writers...

My own little muse, Musetta (she's a coquettish mezzo), is quite tyrannical. She will lean on my feet while I'm working and I swear she's made me stay at my computer longer than I intended. How could I disturb that sweet bulk?

My heart goes out to Lorraine and Sheila. When the late great Cyrus (the philosopher cat) was declining, it just broke my heart. Ditto what Sandra said, enjoy these days.

(yes, my mysteries have cats in them, but I'm serial monogamous - I want ALL my cat's attention to myself.)

Amy Brigham said...

First I want to tell you that I love the pictures of your cats. They are very cute and I'm sure they're as sweet as they look. I have 4 cats myself, ages 7 to 18.

As for the Hemingway cats, shortly after I returned from my trip to Key West this summer, I heard a story on the news about the cats there. I can't remember it exactly, but I know they were saying there had been some discussion about possibly removing some of the cats...something about a law limiting the cat population in a single house, but that there had been some formal exception made for these cats. After hearing that story, I assumed the issue had been resolved...but maybe not?

Either way, I enjoyed the story, and I hope everyone enjoyed the photo.