A six-toed cat at the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla., in April. (Karin Brulliard)
As day broke Monday, authorities were only beginning to assess the damage Hurricane Irma’s brute force wrought on the delicate archipelago that is the Florida Keys.
But it became clear that one beloved tourist attraction had survived the storm unscathed: the colony of six-toed cats that resides at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West.
All 54 cats — and the 10 humans who hunkered down with them in the Spanish Colonial house the author called home in the 1930s — rode out the gusts with aplomb, curator David Gonzales told MSNBC Sunday night, after the worst of the storm had passed.
“The cats are accustomed to our voices and our care. We love them. They love us. We all hung out together,” said Gonzales, who added that the building’s limestone-block walls had not only provided a sort of fortress from the elements but also kept the place nice and cool. “It’s a very comfortable place for the cats, very comfortable place for our employees.”
Another feline resident at the Hemingway Home in the spring. (Karin Brulliard)
Outside the grounds of the 19th-century building, which sits 16 feet above sea level — making it a high point on the island — Irma’s effects remain to be tallied. But the Miami Herald reported that the damage to Key West, a tourist destination and end-of-the-road hideaway, appeared to be less severe than feared. “It’s just trees and foliage and cars,” one resident told the paper.
Hemingway’s cats, as they are known, lounge in calmer times around the museum’s lush gardens or snooze on the indoor furniture as visitors stroll by. They can be found sleeping under the shade of tropical plants, hiding in custom kitty structures, stretched by the swimming pool or cooling off amid the art deco tiles of the bathroom.
Some of the cats descended from Snow White, a six-toed white feline given to Hemingway by a ship’s captain, according to the museum. Cats typically have five digits on their front paws and four on the rear.
A cat sleeps on a windowsill in the bathroom inside Ernest Hemingway’s former house, now a museum. (Karin Brulliard)
Some of the outdoor structures created for the Hemingway cats. (Karin Brulliard)
Although they are commonly known as six-toed cats, not every one of the Hemingway felines has six toes, but the museum says all carry the polydactyl gene. Those with the additional toe look a bit as though they are wearing baseball gloves — or at least as if they could handily swat you across the face.
One six-toed cat’s front paw. (Karin Brulliard)
Their fate as Irma approached was the subject of much angst among their many fans. Had the current group of kitties not made it, they probably would have been added to the cat cemeteries in the museum’s garden. The burial spots are marked with concrete gravestones crudely etched with the names of now-deceased felines, some named for celebrities: Willard Scott, who died at age 12 in 1988; Kim Novak, who was 22 when she passed in 1997; and Gremlin, 1986-2005.
Part of the museum’s burial grounds. (Karin Brulliard)
But before the storm hit, Gonzales and other employees rounded up the cats to ensure their safety. Some, he told MSNBC, “actually ran inside knowing it was time to take shelter. Sometimes I think they’re smarter than the human beings.”
On Thursday, after mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church in Key West, the Rev. John Baker blessed the house, the Hemingway Home staff and the cats. Gonzales told our correspondent, Francisco Alvarado, that he felt sure no cat would lose any of its nine lives.
“I have been watching the news, and people keep talking about how low-lying the keys are,” Gonzales said. “We are not in a flood zone. This is an 18-inch block-limestone building that has been here since 1851 and is still standing.”
He added, “We answer to a higher authority, and we feel very confident the outcome for us is going to be very good.”
A cat laps water next to the swimming pool. (Karin Brulliard)
Francisco Alvarado contributed to this report.
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