The Right Opinion

Don't Tread on Six-Toed Cats

By Jonah Goldberg · Dec. 28, 2012

One of my New Year's resolutions is to work harder to persuade ideological friends and foes alike that the way to reduce partisanship and maximize happiness in America is to embrace federalism – the view that we should push as many decisions as possible to the lowest local level feasible.

Federalism reduces partisanship by shrinking the importance of the federal government. It increases happiness by maximizing the number of people who get to live the way they want to live.

Unfortunately, proponents of federalism tend to start the conversation with the really big issues: gay marriage, drugs, guns, abortion, etc.

I'm for making all of those things local issues wherever possible, too. But, admittedly, those questions are complicated or emotionally freighted. Some questions do cut to the heart of what it means to be an American.

But many don't. So let's start there.

For instance, consider the case of Ernest Hemingway's six-toed cats. According to legend, the writer was given a polydactyl (six-toed) feline named Snowball. Under a deadline, I could not determine whether Snowball was in fact male or female, but assuming he was a he, Snowball managed to overcome the limitations of his emasculating name to leave behind generations of progeny.

Snowball's six-toed descendants live on at the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit every year to see where Hemingway lived when he wrote “To Have and Have Not” and to see 50 or so cats of Snowballian lineage lounge about the grounds of the Spanish colonial.

The cats get weekly veterinary visits and regular belly-scratchings from tourists. The Hemingway Home website says that the cats even have a corporate sponsor, Pfizer, which provides free medicine for them. Most are spayed or neutered to keep the number of Snowball's descendants from snowballing.

The property has a high wall, but as cats are wont to do, they occasionally get out and wantonly rub up against the legs of passersby.

In short, the whole scene is one of sickening cuteness and laid-back charm, consecrated by time and local tradition.

And the federal government cannot abide that.

The Department of Agriculture insists that the cats, with their flagrant sidewalk-napping and unauthorized public self-grooming, must be regulated like lions or elephants or any other “animal exhibit.” As a result, the owners of the museum must:

“obtain an exhibitor's license; contain and cage the cats in individual shelters at night, or alternatively, construct a higher fence or an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or alternatively, hire a night watchman to monitor the cats; tag each cat for identification purposes; construct additional elevated resting surfaces for the cats within their existing enclosures; and pay fines for the museum's non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.”

I don't have the space here to get into all of the details of this 10-year-old legal dispute. But, in short, it's all incredibly stupid.

The fracas began when a neighbor felt that one of the Hemingway cats – Ivan – was getting, in her words, too “macho” with the street cats she fed a couple doors down. So, obviously, she complained to the government in Washington about Ivan the Terrible, and Uncle Sam sprang into action.

After a decade of squabbling, a federal appeals court recently sided with the Obama administration, ruling the museum must comply with the federal diktat or get rid of the cats.

To be fair, maybe the cats are a problem. But you know what? If they are, they're not my problem. I don't live in Key West.

In other words, what on earth is Washington doing setting cat policy – polydactyl or otherwise – for Key West, Fla.?

I'm always amazed by people who love visiting exotic locales abroad – and are often sanctimonious about keeping them exotic – but simultaneously support a government at war with exoticism here at home.

The federal government has plenty on its plate already. It should not be the cavalry of busybody neighbors or aggrieved cat ladies who can't win an argument at the local level.

Key West is not Mogadishu. It has a functioning government, as does the state of Florida. Residents there – and across America – are capable of self-rule, which includes the right to live in ways other Americans might think is crazy or wrong. If the six-toed cats launch an insurrection, complete with an updated feline “Don't tread on me” feline flag, by all means send in the feds.

Otherwise, the locals can work it out for themselves. They'll be happier, and Key West will be a more interesting place to visit.

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Department of Agriculture--Don't tread on Me!!! Thomas Vilsack's renegade cabinet dep't is confiscating millions and millions of tax dollars--Makes me want to go read " Millions of Cats", by Wanda Gag-1928. Grow more vegetables in your own gardens. Make your own capital investments, and achieve INDEPENDENCE FROM GOVERNMENT-federalism for me!

Friday, December 28, 2012 at 7:13 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

Typical response by the government for one person complaining about an issue. I would assume they didn't bother to ask the locals if the cats were a problem because they wouldn't have like the answer. This is another example set by Madilyn Murray O'Hare complaining and having prayer taken out of schools. God save us from offended idiots!

Friday, December 28, 2012 at 11:24 AM

Cal in SoCal said:

Mr. Goldberg makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately his suggestion if far too late. The cat already is out of the bag. Uncle Sugar, as we used to call our
"payroll boss" in the military, is, like Santa Clause, expected to continue to provide "goodies" from now on - call that, forever. Free stuff is there for the giving by Uncle Sugar and taking by - well, most everybody who wants free stuff. Just take a look at what happened in the last election. 'Nuff said. And this is just beginning. Four more years!

Friday, December 28, 2012 at 11:24 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

I once saw a six-fingered flute player, entertaining us on a subway car. He was quite good, so I tossed him a nickel (Thomas Jefferson).

Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 6:55 AM

Mary in Ok city, ok said:

We have been there, toured the home of Hemmingway and believe the government has more important things to do than mess with Cats tat love to rome...leave the cts alone, they are precious and not hurting anyone or anything!

Monday, December 31, 2012 at 12:14 PM

Jim in B'ville said:

Term limits anyone? As I recall, the logic for rejecting term limits involved the idea that voters could remove incumbents at the ballot box. Perhaps, this was true when voters had enough walking around sense to vote intelligently, but times they be achangin' and it's time to put the lid on the cookie jar.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 2:49 AM