A couple of years ago we travelled to Key West and we had the pleasure of visiting the wonderful historical Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street which is a Musuem and home to more than 50 polydactyl or six-toed cats. The Hemingway House was designated a US National Historic Landmark on 24 November 1968.
In 2009, a museum visitor complained about the cats’ welfare and this generated federal litigation and United States Department of Agriculture investigators entered the museum and ordered the caretakers to tag the cats. The Museum challenged the regulations and the final court rule found that the cats affected interstate commerce and they were to be protected under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The Hemingway House does not sell the cats to members of the public but does continue a selective breeding program for them.
While we were there we saw some of the Mother Cats and kittens in cages
All the cats there are well looked after, well fed and freely roam the grounds and lounge around all day.
Nobel Prize winning American writer, Ernest Hemingway received the first polydactyl cat, Snow White, from a sea Captain Stanley Dexter. The descendants of Snow White roam the grounds of the Hemingway House and because Key West is such a small island it is likely that many of the cats there are related.
Polydactyl cats have six toes instead of 5. The condition is inherited and is most likely to occur on the front paws, although some of the Hemingway cats have polydactyl back paws – see pic above. The gene for polydactyl is most commonly found among cats along America’s East Coast as well as in south west England and Wales. The reason for this is most likely that sea captains believed that six-toed cats were good luck because of their extraordinary climbing and hunting abilities and were able to catch more mice and had better balance on rough seas. These “mitten cats” as they were called were brought aboard ships that travelled from the United Kingdom to North America (particularly Boston which was a frequent trading port).
Normal cats have a total of 18 toes, with five toes on front paws and four toes on each hind paw; polydactyl cats may have as many as eight digits on their front and/or hind paws. Jake a Canadian polydactyl was in the Guinness World Records for having the highest number of toes on a cat: 28.
While visiting the Hemingway House we wandered the grounds and were able to pat the cats, although one did take a bite – not the one below. Some of the cats there had normal paws – but all cats on the property carry the polydactyl gene.
I would recommend anyone travelling to Key West to take a tour of this wonderful Museum – entry fee was only $10 and this is put towards the maintenance and care of the Museum and its colorful inhabitants.