KEY WEST, Fla. -- As any visitor to Ernest Hemingway's house knows, the grounds here boast more than just Papa's typewriter, his white iron-framed bed and the oft-used urinal he brought home from Sloppy Joe's bar.
The place teems with six-toed cats -- the so-called Hemingway cats -- who for generations have stretched out on Hemingway's couch, curled up on his pillow and mugged for the Papa-razzi. Tour guides recount over and over how the gypsy cats descend from Snowball, a fluffy white cat who was a gift to the Hemingways. Seafaring legend has it that polydactyl cats (those with extra toes) bring a bounty of luck, which certainly explains their own pampered good fortune.
But it seems the charms of even 45 celebrated six-toed cats have proved powerless against one implacable foe: federal regulators.
The museum's nine-year bid to keep the cats beyond the reach of the Department of Agriculture ended in failure this month. The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the agency has the power to regulate the cats under the Animal Welfare Act, which applies to zoo and traveling circus animals, because the museum uses them in advertisements, sells cat-related merchandise online and makes them available to paying tourists.
In other words, the cats are a living, breathing exhibit and require a federal license.
"The most ludicrous part of the whole thing is that if we were really dealing with the health and welfare of the cats, this would have never been an issue," said Michael A. Marowski, the great-nephew of the woman who bought the Hemingway house in 1961, the year Hemingway died, and opened it as a museum in 1964.
"These cats are so well taken care of," he said, "but because there is a book, and this book tells us that exhibited animals need to be kept this way, we have been put through this."
Mr. Marowski is pondering whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.
In his view, the tale of the Hemingway cats is nothing more than federal regulation run roughshod over the myriad local and state laws that govern domesticated animals. The cats, most of which bear the names of famous people, have long received weekly veterinarian visits, and a vast majority are spayed or neutered.
The cats eat well, are free to lounge on Hemingway's furniture (because it is also their house), and even have their own cemetery near the garden, where Frank Sinatra lies buried within arms' reach of Zsa Zsa Gabor and where Marilyn Monroe is one sultry glance from Mr. Bette Davis (it is Key West, after all).
In fact, when the Agriculture Department sent People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to assess the situation in 2005, the group's investigator concluded: "What I found was a bunch of fat, happy and relaxed cats. God save the cats."
The appellate court agreed that "the museum has always kept, fed and provided weekly veterinary care for the Hemingway cats." In their ruling, the three judges even injected a dose of understanding.
"We appreciate the museum's somewhat unique situation, and we sympathize with its frustration," the ruling states. "Nevertheless, it is not the court's role to evaluate the wisdom of federal regulations."
At the moment, the museum is unaffected by the ruling. That is because it reached a settlement with the department in 2008 that granted the museum an exhibitors' license so long as it extended the height of the fence, added a few special bowls designed to drown bugs and upgraded its cat shelters.
But Mr. Marowski said that did not mean the fight was over. The museum, he said, would be subject to any changes in regulation, any one of which could upend the museum and the cats.
"We are now at the whim of the agency," said his lawyer, Cara Higgins.
David Sacks, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department, said the agency was simply following the law, which also covers team mascots, for example, and is meant to ensure proper daily care. Cruelty is not the threshold, he said. The agency must also track things like toxic peeling paint or rodent infestation.
"If the animal is covered by the act, we don't draw distinctions," he said. "We regulate them."
The dispute began in 2003 after a museum volunteer and cat lover filed a complaint with the department after an aggressive cat wandered from the property. The agency concluded that the museum needed to follow federal regulations on exhibiting animals. But the museum argued that the cats are born and bred at the house, that they seldom wander beyond the grounds and that it is Mr. Hemingway's legacy -- not the cats -- that serve as the main attraction.
"If we had a six-toed cat zoo, we wouldn't get those numbers," Ms. Higgins said.
But the agency disagreed. It sent in an animal behavioral specialist to index the cats and analyze the situation. Undercover agents were then sent in 2005 and 2006 to observe the cats and surreptitiously photograph their movements. One photo shows a gray cat sitting on the pavement. It carries the caption: "Picture of six-toed cat taken in restaurant/bar at end of Whalton Lane and Duval. May or may not be a Hemingway Home and Museum cat."
"It's silliness; it just got insane," Ms. Higgins said. "This is what your tax dollars are paying for. The agents are coming down here on vacation, going to bars and taking pictures of cats."
At one point, the agency recommended a night watchman for the cats. It later threatened to confiscate them. A federal judge in the case even led an impromptu field trip to the museum; federal marshals cleared a path of tourists for the suit-wearing contingent. The legal back-and-forth filled six boxes.
The rumpus has caused no consternation in the lives of the Hemingway cats (and there is a question as to whether Hemingway ever even owned a six-toed cat, but that is another story).
One recent afternoon, a furry Lionel Barrymore nibbled on kibble then hopped off a rock and sauntered away. Hairy Truman sprawled languorously on the patio table, soaking up rubs. And Francis, named for a 2004 hurricane that hit Key West, nestled comfortably on Papa's pillow as guests oohed and aahed.
Some took as much delight in the Hemingway cats as they did in Hemingway lore.
"Hemingway gets you here the first time," said Elizabeth Zettler, 28, who visits every year from Jacksonville, Fla., as she zoomed her lens in tight on Francis. "But the cats keep us coming back."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.