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The Curious Case of the Hemingway Cats in Key West

Last Updated on 18th January 2023 by Sophie Nadeau

It all began with a gift of a kitten to Hemingway by a sea captain. A cat gifted with extra toes is said to be even better at catching mice, which is a blessing out at sea when you don’t want your stocks and supplies to dwindle from pesky pests. Hemingway was a cat person who adored our feline friends and the Hemingway Cats still reside in the writer’s former palatial home turned museum to this day.

The cats of Hemingway's House in Key West, Florida, USA

The Hemingway Home and Museum

Hemingway made his home in later life at Key West, one of the Florida Keys and an easy day trip from Miami. If you so wish you can even go on a bus tour like this one to save you from having to rent a car). Alternatively, spending a couple of days in Key West will give you more of a flavour of the place and allow you to rest while soaking up the ambiance of the Keys.

It’s said that Hemingway built his house close to the lighthouse so that he would always be able to find his way home after leaving the bar. By far, Hemingway’s favourite pub was Sloppy Joe’s Bar, which is still in operation today and looks much as it did when it opened during the 1930s. If you want to learn more about Hemingway’s life in Key West, you can book a tour like this one.

Following Hemingway’s death in 1961, his former home was transformed into a museum. Still in operation today, the cultural space acts as a home to dozens of cats, almost all of whom are descended from Hemingway’s original kitty.

The Curious Case of the Hemingway Cats in Key West

What is a polydactyl cat?

A typical cat has five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws. Polydactyl cats, on the other hand (or paw, if you will!) have as many as nine toes on each paw, though six is the most common number.

This is a genetic anomaly/ mutation but doesn’t cause any harm to the cat. Front paws are most likely to be affected, but back paws can also have extra digits. The rarest polydactyl cats have extra digits on all paws!

Another rare anomaly of the condition is the forming of ‘paws,’ where one digit looks a bit like a thumb (though it isn’t opposable like a true thumb). Polydactyly can affect any cat but is more common in certain parts of the world than others (including along the eastern coast of the USA and in southwest England and Wales).

While it’s probably not true that being a polydactyl cat makes the feline specifically better at catching mice (this is simply an old wives’ tale!), the extra digit means that the cat’s paw is often larger than average, meaning that it is better at balancing and climbing, and therefore may have an advantage over non polydactyl cats at catching prey.

hemingway house

A brief history of the Hemingway Cats

The story goes that Hemingway, a man who is most famed for loving sports such as boxing, hunting and fishing, was gifted a polydactyl cat by a sea captain, Captain Stanley Dexter. Her name was Snow White and she was white.

The feline was presented to Hemingway in 1934 after the writer commented on how lovely Dexter’s own cat, Snowball, was. The name Snow White was given to Hemingway’s first cat by his sons.

Hemingway bred his own cats from his original kitten gift. Today, there are around 50 to 60 cats at the Hemingway property at any given time, though this number undoubtedly changes quite frequently as new kittens are born and older cats sadly pass away.

Around half of the cats display the polydactyl trait, though they all carry the gene and it is an autosomal dominant trait, meaning only one parent needs the trait for a kitten to be born with it. Hemingway would name his cats after famous people and, still today, the curators of the museum where they live follow this practice.

Miami to Key West: An Easy Day trip to the Florida Keys in Florida, USA
Key West Lighthouse

How to see the Hemingway six-toed Polydactyl Cats

For those who are interested in seeing the cats for themselves, you can visit the Hemingway Home and gardens for a fee. Located at 907 Whitehead Street in the southern portion of the island and opposite the lighthouse, the house is set over several floors and is laid out how it would have appeared when Hemingway lived in it.

While touring the property (you can do a self-guided visit or opt for a tour) you’ll soon notice that the cats live as kings and truly have the run of the complex. It’s forbidden to pick up the cats, though you can pet them if they come up to you (and thus wish to be stroked). You can also photograph the cats, but be mindful and don’t use flash photography.

cats at the hemingway house

Things to know before visiting Key West for the first time

You should know before you go that the day is incredibly long and so you’ll want to get an early night the night before, though, of course, you can always sleep on the bus! Bus tours leave from Miami Beach at 7 am and so you’ll need to be at Lincoln Road Mall by at least 6:45 AM so as to check-in for your bus.

Thanks to Key West’s location 250 km south of Miami, the weather is much hotter than the Floridian city! As such, a cover-up, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreens is an absolute must. Comfortable shoes are also essential as you’ll be on your feet for a lot of the day.

You’ll want to carry around plenty of water and ask to fill up your water bottle each time you have the chance to (i.e. after you’ve eaten a meal in a café etc). 

Finally, the best time to visit Key West is between March and May when the weather is at its best (i.e. it’s before all of the rain and the heat of August) and after the crowds of the winter, meaning that prices are generally lower.

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