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Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Black Cat Bias’: The superstition behind black cats’ bad reputation

Black cats are unadopted, euthanized at higher rates than others

<p>Momo, a 3-year-old black cat, sits perched on Anais Naoumoff’s windowsill in Gainesville on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. The name Momo is Japanese for “peach.” </p>

Momo, a 3-year-old black cat, sits perched on Anais Naoumoff’s windowsill in Gainesville on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. The name Momo is Japanese for “peach.”

Few animals evoke stronger symbolism than the black cat. Sleek and opaque, these superstitious felines can’t help being associated with the occult.

The misconceptions surrounding black cats, however sensational, have material implications. 

Black cats are admitted into shelters at a higher rate than their less pigmented counterparts. They also get adopted less than any other coat color, meaning black cats often experience the highest chance of euthanasia, according to the National Library of Medicine. This apparent pattern of undesirability has been colloquially dubbed “Black Cat Bias.”

In an attempt to combat their poor reputation, the month of October was christened Black Cat Awareness Month, with Oct. 27 serving as National Black Cat Day. These festive labels are part of a global initiative to mitigate misconceptions and promote the welfare of black cats. 

“They do have a bad reputation and I don’t think that’s fair,” said Anais Naoumoff, a 20-year-old UF animal science senior. 

Naoumoff has owned her black cat, Momo, for three years. She adopted Momo when the kitten was just 4 weeks old and named the cat after the Japanese word for peach. Due to Momo’s coloration, Naoumoff knew the kitten wouldn’t be appreciated by everyone — that’s why she decided to adopt her.

“Black cats are good luck in Japan, so I kind of wanted good juju for her,” Naoumoff said. 

The curious 3-year-old was a little odd, sporting large green eyes and an extra toe. She seemed too friendly and outgoing. Raised alongside a Border Collie, she prefers the company of dogs over other cats.

During crowded house parties, Momo plays host as opposed to scurrying under bed frames. She has no boundaries. She loves belly rubs. She's just a bit funny. Momo was so friendly that she won Naoumoff over.

“I actually didn’t even plan on keeping her. Originally I really liked her brother,” Naoumoff admitted. “But she won me over because whenever I would take naps in the kitty room, I would wake up and she’d be lying on my throat, suffocating me. And I was like, ‘Yeah I want that one.’” 

In their three years of friendship, Naoumoff feels certain she’s been lucky since meeting Momo. The cat has proven to be a source of comfort for Naoumoff throughout her college experience. 

Next summer, Naoumoff plans to move to France, and Momo, despite fearing long flights, will bravely accompany her abroad. This duty to companionship distinguishes Momo from the other animals Naoumoff works with. 

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“Most animals that I work with have a job,” Naoumoff said. “Momo’s job is to be my friend, and she’s really good at it.” 

Some shelters have embraced the superstition surrounding black cats, refusing adoptions of black cats leading up to Halloween. The decision is due to fear that people will seek out black cats during October to use in occult sacrifices or rituals. However, cat experts like Melissa Jenkins, the 34-year-old operations director for Operation Catnip, have found little credence to such fears. 

“I couldn’t tell you of any study that I know of that identifies that black cats are more at risk around Halloween,” Jenkins said. “That is just a scare tactic… that was all based on a lot of things that got blown out of proportion.” 

Jenkins has always been drawn to helping cats, working with the non-profit for seven years. Operation Catnip is not a traditional shelter. Rather, it works with community members and veterinarians to trap, neuter and release (TNR) free-roaming cat populations. 

While Jenkins was quick to dispel the myth of deadly adoptions, she emphasized animal abusers do exist. Those people, however, aren't typically walking into shelters and going through the paperwork of adopting a cat, Jenkins said. 

“I haven’t found any reason why we should support restrictions of adopting out black cats through the month of October or around Halloween. In fact, it might even be a great way to uplift [them],” she said. 

It has been proven that black animals, both dogs and cats alike, are less likely to be adopted from rescues, Jenkins said. The kennels of shelters are often dimly lit, a poor pairing for cats with covert backcoats.  

“They’re just not as interesting looking for most people,” she said. “They’re boring or they blend in too much with their surroundings.” 

Jenkins disagrees with this sentiment, owning four black cats herself. 

“That is my thing: black cats,” she said. “I remember my first cat that I adopted. That was my only thing. It had to be a black cat.” 

Cat advocates across Alachua County may be well-intentioned but their methods vary greatly. 

Rescues like Angel Whispurrz are among the few organizations that refuse adoptions of black cats during October. Dhyana O’Driscoll, the 50-year-old owner of Angel Whispurrs, runs the entire operation from her home. She has another income business which helps pay for cat food.

“I don’t make money from this,” she said. “This is a side thing that I enjoy. This doesn’t pay the bills at all, in fact, it takes a lot of money away.”

O’Driscoll is a self-described superstitious person. She works as a psychic medium on the side, offering reading services for people wanting to contact their dearly departed. O’Driscoll noted that cats, too, are psychic. 

“There are cultures that are deeply rooted in superstition and mysticism, and so I think some of that black cat stuff comes from more of those cultures,” she said. “But it’s kind of changed over the last few years with a lot of younger adopters.” 

While the popularity of black cats seems to be on the rise, O’Driscoll refuses to adopt out black cats during the month leading up to Halloween. Even if the concern is based on myth, O’Driscoll is unwilling to take any chances, she said. 

“Our goal is to have a successful adoption and the cat lives a long happy life, so even if there's a 1% chance that someone is adopting them for nefarious means, we’re not gonna take that chance,” O’Driscoll said. “I learned that from an older rescuer when I first started out and I just adhere to that policy.” 

Gracie Hartzog, a 19-year-old Santa Fe College sophomore, is studying to be a biological illustrator. When she adopted her first cat, she named her Wormy.

Wormy is shy, tailless and moves with a self-conscious squirm. Whether by choice or circumstance, the 1-year-old was a festive cat. She donned an orange pumpkin-patterned Halloween bowtie around her neck.

Hartzog intentionally adopted a black kitten. She never resonated with the superstition that paints black cats as scary or unlucky. Wormy is harmless, Hartzog said. 

“I do kind of love the getting of a cat that everyone is afraid of and having this tiny little defenseless thing that people are terrified of,” Hartzog said.

Hartzog enjoys the controversy surrounding cats like Wormy. She thinks it’s fun when their black coats let them blend into different areas. She finds humor in their inconspicuousness.

Regardless of their individuality, every black cat carries a similar stigma. Too often, superstitions pave the road for the desirability of certain breeds over others. 

Contact Valentina Sarmiento at vsarmiento@alligator.org


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Valentina Sarmiento

Valentina Sarmiento is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in photojournalism. She is an Avenue staff writer for The Alligator. Aside from storytelling, she enjoys binging horror movies, cats and the occult.


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