Six Toes, Nine Lives, and a Famous Author

Mary Simpson
by Mary Simpson

Key West's Hemingway Home and Museum houses 60 polydactyl cats descended from the author's beloved first six-toed feline.

Photo Credit: Dmitry Dorofeyev/

You love literature, travel, and felines… have we got a destination for you?

Nestled in the bustling beach town of Key West, Florida, sits the opulent Spanish Colonial home of the late author Ernest Hemingway. Famed for works such as The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms (Boomers will appreciate, GenX may need to google), the Nobel-prize-winning writer had a passion for foreign travel, frozen daiquiris, and cats. As to the latter, lots of them.

Now we’re not talking about just any cat. You see back in the 1930s, Hemingway was gifted with a white polydactyl cat he named Snow White. Wondering what a polydactyl is? Unlike the standard feline with five front and four back toes, the polydactyl cat has six front toes that give it a sort of “mitten” effect. Though Maine Coons seem to be predisposed to this condition, these ultra-wide front feet are not typical of any one breed but rather a genetic mutation that can pass along through any feline - from the pampered tabby to the winsome calico to the feisty ginger – rules don’t apply.

Well, no surprise that the broad feet of these cats make them a rural favorite for mousing and rodent patrol. It’s even rumored Hemingway received Snow White from a ship’s captain where this type of cat is considered good luck when hitting the high seas and highly adept when it comes to keeping rats at bay.

The fun part is that because this mutation is known to pass through each generation, it's easy to track and by careful breeding, to continue the six-toe bloodline. And that’s what makes Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, such a must-do on your travels. Since Snow White first made her appearance back in the 1930s, her multi-toed descendants have grown, thrived, and multiplied at the Hemingway homestead. Today, there are approximately 60 polydactyl felines of various sizes, shapes, and ages that call the lush estate their home.

What I love is that Hemingway considered each in his kitty clan to be a unique individual who deserved a special name that would reflect their personality. Hence Clark Gable, Princess Six-Toes, Good Will and Feather Puss came to be.

Now considered to be a museum, Hemingway’s house leaves nothing to chance when it comes to caring for and curating the continuance of the feline inhabitants. Because the cats roam freely indoors and throughout the gardens, vaccines and treatments are provided, with a weekly visit from the vet to monitor any health issues. To prevent in-breeding, cats are spayed (and neutered) after their first litter and when the time comes, there is a tiny pet cemetery tucked at the back of the gardens with each pet’s name duly recorded. What a perfect end to their story.

Mary Simpson
Mary Simpson

Sharing space with three seriously judgy Schnoodles and a feline who prefers to be left alone. #LivingMyBestLife

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