(CN) - The Ernest Hemingway Museum may have to cage the 44 feline descendents of the author's polydactyl cat Snowball kept at the property, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Hemingway lived at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West, Fla., from 1931 to 1938.
During this time, his friend Capt. Stanley Dexter gave him Snowball, a cat that was polydactyl, meaning that it had more than the normal 18 toes.
The trait is so associated with Hemingway's love for his cat that polydactyl cats are often simply called Hemingway cats.
When Bernice Dixon bought Hemingway's house after his death, she converted it into the Ernest Hemingway Museum.
Today, the museum houses 44 of Snowball's descendents, many of which are polydactyl. Most of the cats are spayed or neutered, and all are given veterinary care.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that the museum was an animal exhibitor, subject to federal regulations, because it charged a fee for visitors to enter the museum and because it used the cats in promotional advertising.
Regulations require the museum to contain the cats in individual cages at night, construct a higher fence around the property, or hire a night watchman to monitor the cats, but the museum has resisted classification as an animal exhibitor.
At one point, the USDA threatened to confiscate all the cats, but it eventually granted the museum an exhibitor's license pending a court decision.
The Animal Welfare Act, intended to govern zoos and circuses, gives the USDA jurisdiction over any exhibition of animals that is a "distribution ... which affects [interstate] commerce."
On Friday, the 11th Circuit affirmed the finding that the museum is an animal exhibitor subject to USDA regulation.
"The statute is ambiguous on the question whether 'distribution' includes the display of animals by a fixed-site commercial enterprise," Judge Joel Dubina wrote for a three-member panel. "And, given Congress's intent to regulate zoos, which are notably stationary and which could potentially exhibit animals that are neither purchased nor transported in commerce, we cannot see how the secretary's interpretation of 'exhibitor' is unreasonable."
The District Court found that the Hemingway cats are "distributed" when the museum uses their images online and in promotional materials, but the 11th Circuit found that "distribution" did not just refer to advertising.
"The museum 'distributes' the cats in a manner affecting commerce every time it exhibits them to the public for compensation," Dubina wrote.
"The museum argues that its activities are of a purely local nature because the Hemingway cats spend their entire lives at the museum - the cats are never purchased, never sold, and never travel beyond 907 Whitehead Street," he added. "But the local character of an activity does not necessarily exempt it from federal regulation. And it is well-settled that, when local businesses solicit out-of-state tourists, they engage in activity affecting interstate commerce."
The decision states later: "Notwithstanding our holding, we appreciate the museum's somewhat unique situation, and we sympathize with its frustration. Nevertheless, it is not the court's role to evaluate the wisdom of federal regulations implemented according to the powers constitutionally vested in Congress."