Ernest Hemingway is remembered as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, a journalist, a boisterous hunter and fisherman, and as a lover of cats. Specifically, he is associated with polydactyl cats or cats that have more than the normal number of toes per foot. It is also known as hyperdactyly and is usually a completely harmless oddity.
It’s not unusual for writers to love cats, in fact, some of the best-loved writers and artists who have ever lived have harbored a fondness for cats. These included the likes of Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Charles Dickens, Georgia O’Keeffe, and William Butler Yeats. Unlike these writers though, Hemingway amassed a collection of polydactyly cats. By the time of his death on 2 July 1961, he had around 200 cats between his own in Key West, Florida, and Cuba.
Why did Hemingway Have Polydactyl Cats?
One of Hemingway’s greatest passions in life was sailing and as a sailor, he perhaps believed as others do that polydactyl cats bring good luck to a ship. Hemingway’s curiosity about these cats, and love for cats in a general spread, and a local sailor named Captain Stanley Dexter decided to give Hemingway and his sons a six-toed kitten. This white cat, named Snow White, was the first of a host of cats to live with Hemingway. He brought Snow White home he bred with the local cats, creating a whole line of cats carrying the polydactyl gene. Sometimes the gene is recessive and sometimes dominant.
The Hemingway House and Cats Today
Today, the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida has been turned into museum. There, visitors can learn about Hemingway’s life, his works, and his death while surrounded by his possessions. Cats still roam the grounds and around half of them are obviously polydactyl. Some of these cats are descended from the original polydactyl cat, Snow White.
The cats at the Hemingway House are named as Hemingway would’ve wanted. Meaning, each is named after a famous person. This was a practice he started and is continued today. There have been cats named after writers, celebrities, and presidents. For example “Hairy” Truman, Cary Grant, and Emily Dickinson. Usually, there are between forty and fifty cats at the Hemingway House at any one time. The curators of the house allow each female cat to have one litter and then they are fixed in order to control the population.
Interestingly enough, the cats were the subject of a federal complaint in 2003 after a visitor expressed concern for their welfare. Since the cats have fallen under federal jurisdiction meaning that the United States government is responsible for their upkeep (Mental Floss).
Over the years, the Hemingway Cats have weathered legal battles, streams of tourists, and even Hurricane Irma. The Florida Keys, including the Hemingway Home, was evacuated in 2017 before the arrival of the hurricane. But, ten employees stayed behind to care for the cats who were too numerous to remove from the island. They made it through the storm without any loss of life or injury, cat, or human.
When the cats pass away they are laid to rest behind the house in the gardens. Their small graves are marked by concrete gravestones.