Hairy Truman, one of the feline residents of the Ernest Hemingway Home.
Someday I want to visit The Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, Florida.
It’s not because I’m a fan of Hemingway’s writings (though I am). It’s not even because of the beautiful tropical landscaping and French Colonial architecture, which should be reason enough to see it. The real reason I want to see this historical home is because of the large population of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats that populates the island, the grounds, and the house itself.
Like me, Ernest Hemingway loved cats, particularly polydactyl cats, and most or all of the cats are descendents of his beloved pet, a white polydactyl cat named Snow White, who was given to him by a ship’s captain.
Ernest Hemingway with one of his cats.
The cats–which number about 40 or 50–are not feral; they roam the grounds freely, but they are mostly neutered or spayed (there is a limited breeding program to ensure the polydactyl population remains) and are well cared for by on-site veterinarians. The cats are friendly and are so used to visitors they will come up and greet you or even walk with you. Because Hemingway always named his cats after famous people, the cats are still given names of famous artists, writers, statesmen, and politicians.
Spending some time in the lush tropical gardens of this beautiful home, watching cats with six and seven toes mill all around and interacting with them, is my idea of heaven.
Where did Polydactyl cats come from?
An unidentified Hemingway cat stares up into the lush foliage.
Polydactyl cats are not a breed; the extra toes are a mutation that is almost exclusive to the East Coast of the United States. The first polydactyl cats discovered were some Maine Coon cats living in New England, who had more than the usual number of toes. This is a common trait in Maine Coon cats, and actually helps them tread through snow more effectively.
But polydactyl cats aren’t limited to Maine Coon cats. Polydactyls, like Hemingway’s Snow White, have always been popular as ship’s cats. They are thought to bring good luck on the open seas, and their special paws make them excellent mousers.
The cats are now commonly referred to as “Hemingway cats.”
The sad story of Boris.
Random cat relaxes on a table outside Hemingway Home.
From 1994 to 1999, I had a beautiful brown tabby polydactyl cat named Boris. He was long and lean and his extra toes made his feet look huge! The sixth toe on each of his forepaws was opposable to his other toes, much like a thumb! Boris actually used his big paws much like hands, and was actually able to grip objects in an almost human way, due to the “thumbs.” The extra toes didn’t seem to interfere with his ability to jump, climb and get around. It gave him a rather comical look.
Boris didn’t have 9 lives though. He only lived about five years. The problem began with his tail, which was long and whip-like. It started with a break. I’m not sure how his tail broke (he was an indoor/outdoor cat, so I’m thinking it might have gotten caught on something, possibly a tree branch) but one day I noticed it was hanging oddly in a kind of L shape. Boris didn’t seem to be bothered by it but I knew it was time to take him to the vet. The vet confirmed his tail was broken and after taking x-rays, said it would not be possible to reattach the two tail parts, so Boris went into surgery to have the bottom part of his tail removed.
He came out of surgery and seemed fine, though now he had a stumpy tail no longer than about 3 inches. We took care of his stump and changed his dressings regularly. The vet said he seemed to be healing fine.
A few weeks later Boris seemed lethargic and wasn’t eating. I took him back to the vet, who looked at his stump and noticed it seemed infected. She put him on antibiotics and gave me an ointment to put on his stump. But for some reason, the stump wasn’t healing properly. The infection grew worse and Boris still wasn’t eating.
Another trip to the vet. Boris would have to have his entire stump removed, and this would also include the removal of his penis (he was neutered so he had no testicles). Boris came out of surgery and seemed to be recovering, but a week later he fell ill again.
Closeup of polydactyl paws. This is a six toed example with “thumbs,” which is what Boris had.
Back to the vet again. Another round of antibiotics. After a few days, the infection still hadn’t gone away; it was now spread throughout his lower abdomen. The vet couldn’t figure out why the antibiotics weren’t working and why the infection kept spreading. We watched Boris for a few days and kept giving him the antibiotics but he just kept getting worse.
Finally, the vet told me sadly that she advised Boris be put down, since by now he was suffering — in pain, not eating, and barely conscious. He couldn’t urinate because the opening where his penis had been was also infected and swollen nearly shut, and uric acid was building up in his system. She said there was nothing else she could do to save him.
Tears streamed down my face as she administered the shot, and I watched the life fade from Boris’ bright green eyes as I held onto his hand-like paws. The vet closed his eyes with her fingers and I kissed his toes.
I can’t find a photo of Boris right now (I know I have a few stashed away somewhere though), but he looked a good bit like “Hairy Truman” in the first photo.
I always wanted another polydactyl cat, but they are so hard to find. Since they are not a breed, you basically have to wait until one pops up by chance at the shelter or rescue center. I may never have another six-toed cat, but I’d love to spend some time with the dozens of six and seven-toed cats down in Key West someday.