Printer Friendly

Famous cats, fenced in: the fur is flying over the fate of a group of cats famous for their odd feet.


Each year, thousands of people visit the late Ernest Hemingway's former home in Key West, Florida. Most tourists go to see where the famous writer penned A Farewell to Arms and other popular novels. But there's an additional attraction: the 50-plus cats that roam the grounds. All of the felines ate descendants of the author's pet cat Snowball. That's not the animals' only claim to fame. About half of the cats sport extra toes on each paw, a condition called polydactyly (pol-ee-DAK-til-ee).


For the past 40 years, Snowball's extended family has lived at Hemingway's home, which is now a museum and historical landmark. Their presence helps visitors imagine what it was like when the author lived there with his own pets. "The cats were very much part of Hemingway's life," says Jacque Sands, general manager of the Hemingway Home and Museum.

Recently, however, the Hemingway cats have drawn attention for something other than their unusual trait, or inherited characteristic, for extra toes. The animals are caught in a legal battle over whether they will be able to continue living at Hemingway's home as their predecessors did. Find out the history of the strange-footed cats and whether they will remain a part of the museum's literary legacy.


Hemingway received Snowball, his first polydactyl cat, in 1935 as a gift from a ship's captain who believed the cat's extra toes brought good luck. "Domestic cats normally have 18 toes, five on each front foot and four in the back," says Dr. Solveig Pflueger, a geneticist at Massachusetts's Bay State Medical Center and chair of The International Cat Association's genetics committee. But polydactyl cats have been known to have as many as 28 toes!

What causes the additional digits? Polydactyl cats have a genetic mutation, or change to their DNA. DNA is a chemical that carries hereditary information. The mutation affects the cats' limb development when they are embryos (unborn organisms during their first weeks of growth). Instead of developing the normal number of toes, cats with the mutation usually sprout extra digits on the inside of their paws.

In the past, sailors thought polydactyl cats' oversized paws made them better mouse catchers and brought the felines onboard to help keep their boats rodent-free. In reality, says Dr. Pflueger, "There isn't any reason why polydactyly would help or hinder a cat."


Most visitors to the Hemingway Home would probably agree that the Hemingway cats lead a pampered life. The kitties lounge by the pool, cool off at the outdoor water fountain Hemingway built for them, and are doted on by museum-goers. But unbeknownst to the cats, trouble has been brewing in paradise.

After seeing a few of the cats wandering outside the wall surrounding the Hemingway Home, a neighbor became worried that the museum housed an excessive number of cats. She thought the solution was to spay the museum's female cats and neuter the males. These surgical procedures would keep the animals from being able to reproduce.

The Hemingway Home was against this idea. It wanted to breed some of its cats to continue Snowball's bloodline. To ensure future generations have Snowball's extra roes, at least some of the museum's many-toed cats have to be able to produce offspring. That's because only those cats showing the trait carry the gene, or unit of hereditary material, for polydactyly.

The gene that controls for toe number has two alleles, or forms--one for the normal number of toes and one for extras. Like most animals, cats have two copies of each of their genes, one from each parent. Since the allele for polydactyly is dominant, "You only need to have one copy of the gene in order to express it," says Dr. Pflueger. Still, because polydactyl cats can carry one of each type of allele, they may not pass on their trait for extra toes to all of their offspring (see Nuts & Bolts, right).



The Hemingway Home's unhappy neighbor didn't only complain to the museum staff about the cats; she also contacted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), claiming the museum was violating the Animal Welfare Act. This law, which is enforced by the USDA, ensures that animals bred for sale, used in research, or exhibited by zoos and circuses are treated humanely.

The museum charges an entrance fee, so in the USDA's view, people were paying to see the cats just as they would to see animals perform at a circus. Sands disagrees. "Our cats aren't lions or tigers, they are our pets," she says.

For the cats to go on living on the premises and remain on view to the public, the museum would have to get an animal-exhibition license or pay hefty fines. The cats would also have to live under stricter rules--no more prowling outside the museum grounds at night.

The catfight between the USDA and the Hemingway Home has been going on for five years now. It has involved stakeouts to photograph cat escapees scaling the museum's 2 meter (6 foot)-high walls, lawsuits to fight the license requirement, and creative ways to keep the cats confined to the premises--such as hiring a night watchman. "The whole thing has gotten out of hand," says Sands.


Most recently, the USDA appointed an animal behaviorist to inspect the cats' activities. On her recommendation, the museum is installing a mesh fence that extends beyond the current brick one. The hope is that it will prevent further cat breakout attempts. Will this assure the USDA that the cats are safe and contained, so the museum can continue its tradition of having polydactyl cats? Hemingway buffs and cat lovers alike hope so.

nuts & bolts



A chart called a Punnett square can help you determine the odds that offspring will express a certain trait. Here's how:

(1) For each parent's genetic makeup, assign an uppercase letter for a dominant allele and a matching lowercase letter for a recessive allele (trait that's only expressed if an offspring has two copies of that gene).

(2) Put one parent's letter pair across the square's top and the other along the left side.

(3) Fill in the inner squares by crossing, or combining the letters directly above and to the left of each square. If these two individuals mated, these are the possible gene pairs of their offspring.

Question: What percent of the kittens in the Punnett square below will exhibit polydactyly, a dominant trait?


75 percent

web extra

Learn more about how traits are inherited, at this interactive Web site:


* Who was Ernest Hemingway? What do you know about his life and his work?

* How many toes do most cats have? (Answer: Five toes on each front foot and four on each back foot). Have you ever seen a cat with extra toes? What causes this condition?


* According to Guinness World Records, Jake, a polydactyl cat from Canada, holds the record for having the most toes. Jake has a total of 28 toes. That's 10 more than what most cats have.

* Polydactylism can also occur in humans. According to Guinness World Records, two men from India share the title of "Most Fingers and Toes--Living Person." Both Pranamya Menaria and Devendra Harne have 25 digits each--12 fingers and 13 toes.


* Do you think the Hemingway Home and Museum should be allowed to keep 50-plus cats on its property? Why of why not? What do you think could be done to keep both the museum and its neighbors at peace with one another?


ART: The Hemingway cats have become a prime tourist attraction. Suppose you are an artist hired by the Hemingway Home and Museum. Your job is to design a special logo that features a polydaclyl cat to be printed on souvenir mugs, tote bags, and T-shirts to be sold at the museum's gift shop. Create the logo on a plain sheet of paper.


* Visit the Web site of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum to read more about their famous cats:

* Learn more about the Animal Welfare Act by visiting the Web site of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Welfare Information Center:

DIRECTIONS: Rewrite the following false statements to make them true.

1. Polydactyl cats have a genetic mutation that affects the number of ears they develop when they ate embryos.

2. The allele for polydactyly is dominant. A cat needs to inherit two copies of the gene in order to express the trait for extra toes.

3. The Animal Welfare Act ensures that animals kept as pets ate well-groomed.

1. Polydactyl cats have a genetic mutation that affects the cats' limb development when they are embryos

2. The allele for polydactyly is dominant. A cat needs to inherit only one copy of the gene in order to express the trait for extra toes

3. The Animal Welfare Act ensures that animals bred for sale, used in research, or exhibited by zoos or circuses are treated humanely.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:LIFE: GENETICS; Hemingway cats
Author:Crane, Cody
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 6, 2008
Previous Article:High-school heroes: when emergencies erupt, a squad of teen responders is ready.
Next Article:Hands-on science: (no lab required).

Related Articles
Hands-on science: (no lab required).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters