The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum announced Thursday it reached an agreement with the federal government that lets the 50 or so cats continue roaming the grounds, ending a five-year battle that could have resulted in them being removed or caged.
The cats descend from a cat named "Snowball" given to the novelist in 1935 and freely wander the grounds of the Spanish colonial house. All the cats carry the gene for six toes, but not all show the trait.
The home is where the Nobel prize-winning author wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "To Have and Have Not" and is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Florida Keys.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the agreement. It had threatened to fine the museum $200 per day per cat -- about $10,000 -- saying it didn't have the proper animal exhibition license and couldn't qualify for one, primarily because the animals weren't enclosed. The museum has installed a fence to keep the animals on the one-acre property.
From 2003 until October 2007, a series of meetings between USDA and museum officials proved fruitless, said Michael Morawski, president and CEO of the museum.
Finally, about a year ago, Morawski and a USDA deputy administrator agreed to hire an independent animal behaviorist to make recommendations. Dr. Terry Curtis, from the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, said in a report that the cats appeared "well-cared for, healthy and content" and suggested the special fence that was installed.
"We're excited we found a solution that protects the health and welfare of the cats while preserving the historical integrity of the Hemingway Home and Museum," Morawski said. "That's been our whole goal since we were notified by the USDA in 2003."
Morawski said the museum has spent more than $250,000 for lawyers and the fence and continues to question the need for the permit. The courts might have to settle that question.
"The cats have been living on the grounds for years and we're not a zoo, carnival or amusement park," he said.