This story begins as does most of the prevailing Eurocentric culture in the US with the sailors that brought the Vikings, Polynesians, explorers, colonists, unscrupulous opportunists, slaves, goods, plants, and livestock to this continent.
My honorable readers can choose to accept whatever date, coast and site of landing that suits you, so don’t perceive any wind up your skirts. The fact is people who lived on our oceans can and do have many superstitions that have worked their way into our language and behaviors.
Consider cats. All cats, especially black cats, were thought to bring the best of luck to any voyage. And cats with extra toes, for which the medical term is polydactyly, were and are especially welcomed among international crews.
My great-uncle George Ruiz, a native of Costa Rica, went to sea at the age of 12 on square riggers. He spoke six languages fluently and knew every card and board game that exists. Before he died in his late 80s he told me, a junior high school student at the time, about the sea. It was magic listening to tales of the weather whilst rounding the Horn or the eventual takeover of the all-metal powered vessels, first riveted, then later welded together.
He loved cats. Cats with extra toes, he said, were thought to be better rat catchers. Also, by logic that followed, their extra toes made them less fearful of weather because they were more capable of keeping their balance. Because their paws were bigger they were all called “mitten cats.”
Allowing cats aboard was and is tolerated by most of a ship’s executive ranks because the vermin they keep under control, like no other poison or trap, chew through lines, electrical insulation, stores and shipped commodities. Even on today’s modern container ships, the problem still exists though is not as bad.
Snow White was the name of a white polydactyl kitten that the great American writer, Ernest Hemingway, was gifted in the 1930s from a sea captain named Stanley Dexter. If one travels to Key West, Fla., as I have, you can visit the former Hemingway home.
The tour is nothing special, a modest (by today’s standards) French Colonial, it was built in 1851 by Asa Taft at 907 Whitehead St. By today’s standards and with the astronomical real estate prices there, it would be valued on par as a mansion rivaling anything in the Los Angeles basin with the provenance.
Snow White’s offspring are allowed the run of the place. I seriously doubt they are all Snow White’s and most but not all are polydactyl. Foundation funds and a full-time care staff replete with a local veterinarian see to their needs. This includes a schedule of spaying or neutering kittens to keep the population at a reasonable level.
More recently, a veterinary pharmaceutical company has gifted the cats with a well-known drug to prevent heartworms, flea and other harmful parasites. A company that manufactures state-of-the-art outdoor cat enclosures has also stepped forward to help protect the little kitties.
Visitors are enthralled with the little cats. The cats, however, are a little less friendly in some cases having been handled so much so they keep a distance. The downside, which does not seem to bother most people it seems, is that in the humidity of the Florida Keys, the odor of so many cats’ waste hangs in the air.
Hemingway named his cats after famous people. The staff continues to do so today. A Hemingway cat app is available for a fee, with identities and photos of the felines.
Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email firstname.lastname@example.org.