There are about 60 polydactyl cats living at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Florida.
Source: Original photo by Matteo Omied/ Alamy Stock Photo
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There are about 60 polydactyl cats living at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Florida.

In 1943, in a letter to his first wife, Hadley Mowrer, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “One cat just leads to another.” All these years later, the famed writer’s adage rings true, especially at his former estate in the Florida Keys, which is home to about 60 cats. These feline descendants of Hemingway’s original cat colony share a special trait: About half of them are polydactyl, meaning they have more toes than the average housecat. Most domesticated felines have 18 toes — five on each front paw and four on each back foot — but polydactyl cats can have as many as eight “toe beans” on each paw. (According to the museum, about half the cats there display “the physical polydactyl trait but they all carry the polydactyl gene in their DNA.”)

Key West is home to thousands of street chickens.
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Incorrect.
It's a Fact
While Key West was called the “Isle of Cats” long before Hemingway’s horde, the city also has a hefty number of roving street chickens. The free-range fowl are both beloved and known for causing trouble, though particularly problematic poultry are relocated out of the city.

Those enlarged feet are considered lucky among sailors, who believe they help boat cats better plant their paws in turbulent waters and catch stowaway rodents. That could partly be why Hemingway, known for his love of sailing, favored polydactyl cats; the first of his colony — named Snow White — was reportedly gifted to him by a sea captain. 

Despite his reputation for machismo, Hemingway had a soft spot for cats. While he was alive, the Florida home where he penned several novels was something of a cat sanctuary, home to as many as 80 cats at once, which were frequently mentioned in his letters to family and friends. More than six decades after Hemingway’s death, his cat clan lives on. Each cat at the author’s residence is born there, given (per tradition) a celebrity name like Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, or Alfred Hitchcock, and granted free roam. They’re friendly with the thousands of visitors they meet each year, and may just take after Hemingway’s tough nature — fortunately, the cats safely rode out both Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Ian in 2022 with not a hair out of place.

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Numbers Don’t Lie
Record number of toes on Jake, a Canadian polydactyl cat, counted in 2002
28
Year Hemingway published his debut novel, “The Sun Also Rises”
1926
Number of novels written by Hemingway, including two posthumous releases
9
Years Hemingway lived at his Key West home full-time (from 1931 to 1939)
8
Polydactyl cats are also called “_______” because of their paw shape.
Polydactyl cats are also called “mitten cats” because of their paw shape.
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Think Twice
Author Mark Twain was known for “renting” cats.

Hemingway wasn’t the only writer with an affinity for cats. Mark Twain also was known for preferring the company of felines — and while it was just a fraction of Hemingway’s herd, Twain’s colony included nearly 20 cats at one time. The author’s ingenious wit wasn’t just reserved for his writings; his cat companions received colorful names such as Sour Mash, Soapy Sal, and Blatherskite. Cats were such constant companions for Twain that he couldn’t bear to be without them, going so far as to “rent” cats when his travels took him far from his own. In one such case, Twain spent the summer of 1906 in New Hampshire, where he borrowed three kittens from a nearby farm, naming one Sackcloth and both kittens in an identical pair Ashes. But Twain’s summertime stays weren’t just a feline fling; his cat rental fee included lifetime care for his short-term companions.

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