Six-toed Hemingway cats an intriguing part of Key West

1. Cat.

KEY WEST – Rita Hayworth lounges on a bed. Tony Bennett curls up on a chair. Harry Truman suns himself on the front porch. Howard Hughes snoozes by a bench. And Dorian Gray hangs out somewhere around the bushes.

These cats are free to go wherever their want in the Hemingway House because it is their home. They are special cats and as many people probably come to see them as come to view the Key West place where renowned author Ernest Hemingway used to live and write.

They are the famous six-toed Hemingway cats.

“They are all descendants of Snowball, the original six-toed cat,” said guide Mary Jane. “We have 44 cats today and they lead a very good life.”

It all started, Mary Jane said, when an old sea captain gave Hemingway his six-toed fluffy white cat named Snowball. “Ernest Hemingway admired that cat so when the captain left town, he gave the cat to him,” Mary Jane said.

Seafaring legend has it that polydactyl cats (those with extra toes) bring a bounty of good luck. “Hemingway was a very superstitious man. He believed he needed all the good luck he could get,” Mary Jane said.

The Hemingway cats themselves seem to be quite lucky. “They have really good care here,” Mary Jane said. “The vet comes once a week to check on them … Our cats have an average life span of 18 to 21 years.”

2. catThe Hemingway tradition of naming cats after famous people has continued and the cats respond to their unique names. “They know when we are calling them and they come if they want to,” Mary Jane said with a laugh. It might help, I noted, that guides and caretakers often carry kitty treats that the alert cats can sense no matter where they are.

Cats normally have five front toes and four back ones. Not all the cats at the Hemingway Houyse have six toes but they all carry the physical polydactyl gene in their DNA which means they can father or mother six-toed kittens. Most of the cats have extra toes on their front feet and sometimes on their back feet as well.

Although the yard is fenced (Hemingway got tired of prying eyes when he became famous) and cat secure, the cats could come and go if they wanted. “But they have food, water, shelter and love here so they really don’t want to go anywhere,” Mary Jane said.

To keep the tomcats from prowling during the night, the big boys are rounded up each evening and kept inside until morning. Of course, the toms don’t need a clock to figure out when the 5 p.m. roundup time is about to begin and some of them like to hide. Every tom has to be accounted for, however, and caretakers can be lead on a merry chase until the daily task is done.

Cats are very territorial. Not only do they want to stay in their home, they also want to keep other non-Hemingway cats out. When a resident cat sounds the alarm that an intruder is on the premises, caretakers make sure the new cat is caught and escorted outside as soon as possible.4. Cat

It’s not that the cats are unfriendly, they just know who belongs here and who doesn’t. As for friendliness, the cats have grown from birth being super socialized so they can deal with all the attention they get from visitors. The only house rule is “Don’t pick up a cat.”

Makes sense. The cuddly critters would probably be held all day long by visitors if caretakers didn’t enforce that rule.

When their time on earth is done, the Hemingway cats have a forever home in a special cat cemetery on the property. Residents who have crossed the Rainbow Bridge are commemorated with a plot and name plaque so their memories live on – Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mr. Bette Davis (it is Key West after all) and many more are buried here.

For Carolyn Sanders, a chance to see and photograph the six-toed cats was one of the highlights of her Carnival Magic cruise.

“I think I was one of the first passengers off the ship this morning,” Sanders said. “Going to Key West was the reason I chose this cruise and I’m sending pictures of these cats to my friends back home. It’s something you have to see to believe.”

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 Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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