KEY WEST, Fla. — The notion that Charlie Chaplin is putting on a show as he snoozes on the Hemingway House veranda — well, that's enough to make a cat laugh.

KEY WEST, Fla. — The notion that Charlie Chaplin is putting on a show as he snoozes on the Hemingway House veranda — well, that's enough to make a cat laugh.

But neither the fluffy feline, named for the Little Tramp because of his tuxedo-like markings and black mustache, nor his 46 siblings lazing around the late author's estate would likely be amused if the U.S. government succeeds in designating them an "animal act" and restricts their freedom.

Pampered descendants of Ernest Hemingway's six-toed cat Snowball have had the run of the leafy compound for generations.

They are named for the writer's wives, fictional characters, Hollywood friends and colleagues. Zane Grey and Truman Capote often can be found napping in the flower beds between the villa and the pool. Archibald MacLeish prefers the cool tiled floor of the master bathroom. Emily Dickinson seems indifferent to the camera flashes catching her in repose on a predecessor's tombstone, rarely bestirring herself from the limelight.

Fed organic cat food, tended weekly by a veterinarian and petted, photographed and cooed at by tourists, the cats have become a beloved quirk of this Key West landmark.

But the languid lifestyle of the Hemingway House cats is threatened by proposals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to treat them as if they were performers in a zoo or animal circus. The feds want the museum to obtain an animal exhibition license that would require staff members to "protect" them from contact with spectators and cage them after their daily "performance" ends when the front gate closes at 5 p.m.

"Our cats do not do tricks. They don't do flips and jump through hoops. They're our pets!" said Jacque Sands, on-site manager and 14-year veteran at the museum, where the cats also can curl up in kitty condos scattered through the gardens. "They own us. We don't own them."

Born of a spat several years ago with a neighbor, the conflict has pitted their keepers against two former members of the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Motivated by concern for what they considered an excessive cat population on the property and the potential for the cats to escape and be run over, Gwen Hawtof and Debra Schultz are believed to have brought the museum to the attention of those charged with applying the 1966 Animal Welfare Act, said museum chief executive Michael Morawski.

The Hemingway cats rarely strayed from the 1-acre property surrounded by a 5-foot brick wall until Schultz arrived about eight years ago and established a feral cat feeding site half a block away, said Morawski. Cats began disappearing over the wall and turning up at the SPCA as captured strays, he said.

In October 2003, a USDA inspector posing as a tourist surveyed the grounds and later issued the museum staff an order to get a license or face $10,000 in daily fines. A veterinarian from the USDA has made repeated inspections of the property since then, recommending increasingly restrictive measures each time, said Morawski.

Angled screens have been installed on top of the wall to prevent the cats' jumping over and a misting system set up to dissuade any critters loitering too close to the exits.

He and the cats' caregivers have balked, however, at government requirements that the museum prevent escapes by installing an electrified wire atop the wall and 12- to 15-foot-high mesh backstopping as found along driving ranges and ball fields.

"Our National Historical Site designation precludes us from doing anything like that," Morawski said. "It became contentious to the point where they said, 'If you can't do these things, you'll have to round them up and put them in cages.' "

That would be traumatizing for cats reared with freedom to roam about the flowering gardens, fountains and louvered salons of the house and outbuildings, said Sands.

The only known off-site fatality involved a cat run over after being lured out by the activists, Sands said.

Neither Hawtof nor Schultz has a listed number and an SPCA spokeswoman said neither is associated with the society anymore.

USDA spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said the agency was not insisting on individual cages for the cats, just that "enclosures be set up so other animals can't enter and the cats can't get into the street."

She couldn't comment on the exact changes sought at the museum because the case has become a legal matter. The museum has challenged the USDA designation in district court, which has sent the case back to the parties to seek a negotiated solution.

The cat population is down from its usual 60 or so, though museum managers are expecting a litter in early autumn to replace the generation succumbing to old age, like Mark Twain, whose cancer claimed him at 21 last year, and 20-year-old Trevor Howard, who had to be euthanized in July when his kidneys failed.

Many of the cats are spayed or neutered, but a couple of males and females are allowed to breed to maintain what museum staff consider the optimal population, said Morawski.

There is now a Web-based petition to Save the Hemingway Cats, and the Key West City Commission has exempted the museum from a city law prohibiting more than four domestic pets per household. The commission pronounced the cats "an integral part of the history and ambience of the Hemingway House," which draws 300,000 visitors each year.

Tourists oppose the government moves to restrict the free-ranging felines, whose names and haughty deportment conjure images of an era when the two-legged Ava Gardner, Spencer Tracy, Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth mingled with literary legends like Hemingway, MacLeish and Simone de Beauvoir.

"I don't think that's right at all!" said Charlene Walters of Greenville, Ohio, of the USDA demands as she tried to entice a calico reclining at poolside.

"Hemingway had them this way — they're not hurting anybody," said Robert Cole of Knoxville, Tenn., as he and his wife, Rachel, rested on a wrought-iron bench, with Jake Barnes stretched out in the shade beneath them.

After nearly four years of legal wrangling and acrimonious back-and-forth, the case of the exhibited but nonperforming cats may be heading toward compromise.

The USDA postponed a late-July administrative hearing to allow an animal behaviorist from the University of Florida, Terry Curtis, to render an independent assessment of how confinement would affect the cats' mental and physical health.

Her report is expected in two to three weeks.