Giving Paws: Your Tax Dollars And The Hemingway Cats

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
At the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida, it's all about the cats. There are 47 cats who live on the property, give or take a few...the legacy of Ernest Hemingway who lived and wrote in the home for several years in the company of his exotic polydactyl cats.

The story of how the federal government got involved in regulating...thinking it had to "protect"...the Hemingway cats is complex. Suffice it to say that the United States Department of Agriculture was brought in based on a complaint about the cats leaving the property. Cats are allowed to roam freely in Key West because there's no leash law. But once the USDA came in, according to the Hemingway House, it became impossible to discern exactly what changes they wanted and what would make them well...go away.

The dispute has just entered its fifth year and is the topic of our story tonight on the CBS Evening News. The real reason we care is because the time and resources USDA is spending on the Hemingway cats is taxpayer money.

We asked USDA for an accounting of the costs, and also for the public court documents in the case and the surreptitious videotapes and photographs their agents took. (Yes, USDA agents went "undercover" at the Hemingway house and took photographs. Hemingway House says they're not sure why, since they never denied that they do...have...cats.) USDA wouldn't give us the information or materials. They are making us go through a process called "FOIA". It means requesting the public information formally, under Freedom of Information laws.

Freedom of Information law was originally designed to facilitate release of public information to those who want to see it. However, most Washington DC-based journalists would probably agree that many federal agencies have distorted the law and instead use it to obstruct or delay the release of obviously public material. Materials that are easily at hand and obviously public...are withheld while the news agency's FOIA request is put at the back of the line and filled in order. The line grows longer because the federal agency is needlessly putting so many requests into the line. And sometimes many years go by before any sort of response is given. No telling when the USDA will give us information we requested on the cat case.

Meantime, the USDA says the purpose of becoming involved in any animal case is for the welfare of the cats. Specifically, they said they wanted to make sure the cats were seen by a vet, fed properly and had clean housing. By every account we heard, this was always the case at the Hemingway House. A veterinarian visits weekly, the cats are all vaccinated, they're all "fixed" except whatever pair or small group is being allowed to breed to maintain the current population. Federal law requires each cat to have 3 square feet of space. The government's own expert found the Hemingway cats have more than 400 square feet of space, much of it natural gardens and jungle-like surroundings. Life seems pretty good.

Yet for the good of the cats, the Hemingway House says the USDA suggested everything from "reducing the population," to caging the cats at night, to using an electric fence to keep them on the property. The electric fence was a disaster. Cats apparently hunker down when they get in the shock zone. A Hemingway cat got burned. The Hemingway House staff says the USDA should've known better. After all, they claimed to be the experts.

Meantime, we were able to count at least 14 field trips by USDA agents to the Hemingway House. (One observer noted, "It sure beats going to New Jersey to investigate mad cow disease.")

In addition to not releasing the documents to us, USDA wouldn't agree to an on camera interview. And they wouldn't supply us with a copy of their own hired expert's evaluation of the cats (even though your tax dollars paid for the expert to evaluate the cats: more than $17,000). We got a copy of the expert's report anyway on our own. She said the cats appear "well cared for, healthy and content." She said the cats and the humans on the property interact like "family."

No doubt some, if not all, of the people involved at USDA have their hearts in the right place. Nobody is trying to make things bad for the cats. But somewhere along the way, it seems as though common sense was lost. Even if the cats' lot had needed improving, which is in dispute, surely there was a way to make that happen without spending so much federal time, money and resources.

Next time you hear the USDA saying that it has a shortage of funds, or that it needs more money to ensure the food supply is safe, you at least can rest assured that their agents pulled out all the stops to pursue the case of the Hemingway cats.

No one will ever accuse them of pussy-footing around.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.