Hairy Truman

One of Key West Estate’s six-toed cats, Hairy Truman, taken in 2008.  
Photo: Florida Keys News Bureau / Ottawa Sun

Consider this situation in Florida: Once upon a time, Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) had a six-toed tomcat. The tomcat sired a number of progeny—or anyway there are a number of cats claimed to be his descendants — on the Key West Estate, operated today as a tourist attraction and museum, the cats being one of the drawcards.

If you do not have cat allergies, the Key West place will likely seem cute and photo friendly; otherwise, you might wish to bypass the feline leg of your “literary giants” tour.

But all is not well in the land of administration. The U.S. federal government got involved in a fight between a local cat rescue lady who wants stringent controls on the Hemingway Estate’s cats, and the estate, which resisted them. A judge recently decided in favour of the federal government’s demand that the estate treat the cats as if they were specimens in a zoo. For example, they must by law be caged separately at night.

That will, of course, be inhumane. Cats, left to themselves, form “sleeping colonies” in which cats who get along keep each other warm and cats who don’t get along roost elsewhere. In any event, tame cats are domestic animals, not wild animals, a fact apparently lost on the government officials, who thought that a zoo regimen applies equally to non-social and social species, and to wild and tame species.

(Some people describe domestic cats as antisocial, but that is simplistic. Cats are not herd or pack animals, to be sure, But they are quite capable of getting along with other cats who share or respect their territory.)

The original Hemingway cat policy sounded reasonable to me. Most of six-toed Snowball’s supposed descendants are neutered and all are cared for and vetted. The problem that moved this case to a federal level was that one persistent cat jumps the wall and finds himself in squabbles with the strays that the neighbour kindly feeds. (Conflict of interest statement up front: I have three rescue cats who get along fine.)

It’s certainly hard to see how a big bureaucracy would help sort out a fight between a local literary estate and a nearby cat philanthropist, about a cat who gets over the wall and does, well, stuff he shouldn’t.

Is there no alternative? Yes, there is. According to Catholic social teaching the authorities in this case would do well to apply the principle of subsidiarity.

As David A. Bosnich puts it,

One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.

This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the welfare state was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

“Rescue Lady v. Estate” (or “Federal Government v. Estate”) is at bottom a welfare issue; how to reconcile the welfare of all the cats and the human actors involved. Clearly the cats could not solve it for themselves. If those directly responsible for them could not agree, the principle of subsidiarity suggests that this goal should have been pursued by the local authorities with the help of animal welfare experts and a skilful arbitrator. It should have been made clear that costs would accrue to both parties.

There is another traditional principle involved here: noblesse oblige. The Key West Estate administrators, representing a higher-level entity with more financial and other resources, ought to have been generous towards the complainant, within reason, so as to reach a compromise. After all, since they both have the welfare of the animals at heart.

If nothing else, a fight over cats at federal court level in the United States shows that many humans do care about dumb nature. But raising to high government levels issues that should have been dealt with locally does not help either cats or humans. All they have learned, each in their own way, are the consequences of excessive power.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...