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Hey, USDA: Don't Cage the Hemingway House Cats!

Are the polydactyl cats who live at the Hemingway House part of a museum display? The USDA thinks so -- and wants them to be caged instead of roaming the property.

 |  May 1st 2012  |   25 Contributions


This week in News of the Ridiculous: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's long-running drama with the polydactyl cats of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum is apparently ramping up once again.

It seemed like everything had been settled in 2008, when the museum received an animal exhibition license after four years of legal wrangling focused on the USDA's claim that the museum was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act because it didn't cage the dozens of cats who live on the property. 

Everything probably would have gone on as it had been if Hemingway Museum owner and CEO Michael Morawski hadn't decided to appeal the USDA's ruling that the facility needed to have that license.

But no: He awakened the sleeping giant, and the creaky wheels of government bureaucracy started rolling toward the facility once again.

A Hemingway Home cat lounges on a stone patio. Photo originally uploaded by Wikipedia user Wknight94, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. Original image here.

Morawski challenged the licensing requirement, arguing that the cats don't fall under the USDA's regulation because the cats aren't made to perform tricks, they're not crossing state lines, and they're not being sold or distributed. Thus, the museum said, all this folderol about licensing and regulation is a waste of taxpayers' money.

The man has a point.

But unfortunately, Morawski's appeal didn't have the desired effect. Last year, a District Court judge sided with the government. Even though the cats are born and live and die on museum grounds and are never bought or sold, he said, they are "displayed" on the museum's website -- and that's enough to qualify the case under the commerce clause of the Animal Welfare Act.

The government seems to be saying that because the museum broadcasts images of the cats through a webcam and uses them in promotional materials that will bring in paying visitors, the museum is qualified as an exhibitor under the act's guidelines. In the words of the museum's attorney, Cara Higgins, the judge ruled that the Animal Welfare Act regulates not just animals but pictures of animals.

By those standards, any animal shelters that use webcams in their facilities need to license their cats. Maybe bloggers who post photos of their cats on their websites -- websites that might bring in a few dollars of ad revenue a month -- need to license their cats too.

One of the many polydactyl cats that live at the Hemingway Home. Photo by Marc Averette, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Original image here.

Higgins has, of course, appealed the ridiculous decision, and the case is due to go before the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"There is no evidence that the photographs or Internet video has any substantial effect on any interstate commerce, nor is it logically/rationally related to a legitimate federal government interest regarding animal welfare," she wrote.

At first I thought that the Hemingway Home was a nonprofit, as most museums and historical sites are, but I figured I'd better check my facts before ranting about the government. I checked the IRS's database of nonprofits, and the Hemingway Home & Museum is not listed there. If in fact the Hemingway Home is a for-profit business, I could see why some USDA bureaucrats might get their snouts in a twist over the cats' presence and their potential -- however infinitesimally small -- to generate profit.

Nonetheless, I agree with Higgins that the intent of the USDA licensing requirement was not to regulate the posting of cat photos and videos on the Internet, but to protect animals being bought and sold in interstate commerce, or circus animals, or other such critters -- not 40 cats who get regular veterinary care and never leave the property they call home.

So hey, I've got an idea: If the USDA is so keen on enforcing animal welfare laws, it could start with puppy mills and kitten farms. The animals bred in those horrific places are really the ones that need the USDA's assistance!

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