Black Cats are Victims of Our Own Imaginations
October 27, 2014
It's Halloween this Friday, and that felt like as good a time as any to talk about black cats. These poor critters live with the weight of several erroneous beliefs on their feline shoulders, all because of their high melanin count. Are cats bad luck? Are they victims of occult malfeasance? Are they less likely to be adopted? The answer to some of these may surprise you.
At one time, there were several widely believed superstitions about black cats in the Western world. I'm sure you're familiar with some of them, most likely the negative ones that have dominated Western thinking since at least the 1600s. Black cats crossing your path being an omen of bad luck is the most popular superstition, one mostly divorced from its context nowadays. The crossing of the path was actually problematic in ye olde Europe because black cats were viewed as witches' familiars, and a black cat probably meant there was a witch nearby. Other stories said that witches and familiars could turn themselves into black cats. Either way, you were going to have a bad day if a black cat was around.
I don't think most people actually take these myths seriously anymore -- after all, if black cats crossing one's path really were a bad omen, there would be a lot of unfortunate pet owners out there! -- but collectively, the lingering stigma of such superstitions has cast a pallor over black cats in the Western world, one undeserved by the animals solely on account of their color.
The stigma continues, one could argue, in the iconography still popular in Halloween merchandise today. The black cat, usually paired up with the equally negative imagery of the "evil" witch, is common on greeting cards, t-shirts, advertisements, and other things associated with the holiday. It's a continual reinforcement of the idea that black cats are somehow bad, even if their depictions nowadays (along with the witches who keep them) has become mostly cartoony and harmless.
What's interesting about black cat superstitions is that they have given rise to a counter-belief, one that could probably be described as a black cat 'moral panic'. There is widespread belief amongst both animal shelters and black cat caretakers is that the reputation of the black cat as an occult figure has led to black cats being targeted by actual occultists, especially around Halloween. It is widely believed that Satanic cults or other occultists will try to abduct black cats for rituals, possibly even torturing or killing the cat in the progress.
This is an urban legend long debunked. Not only is there no actual data to back up this assertion, but the very concept is rooted in the supposed existence of Satanic cults engaging in nefarious behavior in our communities, itself an urban legend with no real evidence to support it (see Jeffrey S. Victor's excellent book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend for a full discussion of this).
The idea is believable enough to those concerned with animal welfare, however, that many animal shelters in the United States and elsewhere restrict the adoption of black cats this time of year, or even to flat out stop adopting them until after Halloween is past. They also warn black cat caretakers to be wary of their cats, keeping the animals indoors so that the cat doesn't become a target.
It's hard to fault individual families for a "better safe than sorry" position on Halloween, especially since the worst consequence is that Midnight doesn't get to go out mousing for a few days. When shelters take this tactic, though, they are potentially keeping black cats from good homes if legitimate caretakers come in looking to adopt. Again, I understand the "better safe than sorry" approach; but such an approach exacerbates a larger problem that there are simply too many black cats who go unadopted every year.
Or do they? A recent analysis of adoption data by the ASPCA actually found no such trend in their data. Instead, they found that there were simply a lot more black cats (and dogs) than there were animals of other colors. Black is a dominant gene trait. The author suggests that this creates the perception that black cats are less likely to be adopted and more likely to be euthanized, when in fact there just more of them in general. The author concluded:
So first — some good news for those of you doing black dog and cat promotions — no need to stop just because we bust the myth that people do not want black dogs and cats. With more of them coming in, there's no reason not to promote even more going out! However, this data, along with the research I have shared in the past should help curb the message that black dogs and cats are less likely to be adopted — as, at least in many places, it simply is not true.In the end, a cat is just a cat regardless of its color. That black cats suffer a burden of irrational beliefs deeply rooted in our society is unfortunate. Between the irrational fear of evildoers and the over-exaggerated care response to the same, black cats are ultimately victims of their own pigmentation.
Author's note: All of the black cats on this page either belong to loving homes, or are looking for them. If you want to adopt a black cat -- or any animal in need of a home -- try contacting your local shelter. Thank you to both Mid-Michigan Cat Rescue and to the owners of black cats who allowed me to use the pictures in this article.
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