It's the week of Halloween, and maybe you don't know this, but if you suddenly wanted to adopt a black cat, you would probably have a hard time. That's because thanks to their association with witchcraft, accepted wisdom holds that Halloween is a time when people ritualistically mutilate black cats.
To test if this really was still accepted wisdom, I contacted some animal shelters near to our Los Angeles office, and they all told me they wouldn't let me adopt a black cat. One, The Lange Foundation—the type of animal rescue that takes in cats from city shelters before they can be euthanized—was willing to talk to me on the phone and explain: If someone were to call and ask specifically for a black cat, that would trigger the policy. "I would say 'not today!'" said one of the foundation's board members, Diana Nelson.
The policy is somewhat casual in its execution, however. Nelson gave the proviso that the Lange Foundation would be perfectly willing to let someone adopt one "if it's someone we know." In fact she told me black cat adoption had "never become an issue."
When asked I Nelson why, the policy became a little less clear. "We're afraid they're going to harm them," she said, "because apparently there are bad people."
We reached out to The Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to find out if they had official policies on the matter, but they did not return requests for comment.
In the late 1980s, animal shelters started to set aside black cats around Halloween in order to prevent people from adopting them. According to an Associated Press report from 1987, a woman went into a Chicago animal shelter that year and asked for a black cat as some kind of accessory for her Halloween costume. Weirdly, according to the story, the shelter let her adopt one on that premise, and a few days later law enforcement reported a dead cat.
The idea seemed to catch on. Throughout the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you couldn't adopt a black cat around Halloween.
Why? For the same reason kids couldn't listen to Marilyn Manson in the 1990s: Satan.
"It goes back to satanic rituals and the strange kinds of things that happen at this time of year," Jeanne Stoffel, executive director of the Ozaukee, Wisconsin Humane Society told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1996.
It's hard, however, to find a definitive example of a cat-sacrificing ceremony on Halloween. A rash of grisly cat mutilations in California in 1999 appears to have occurred in the summer when there was a full moon. A series of incidents in Utah that were reported around Halloween of 2002, actually began in the spring, and also involved dogs. That story cited, seemingly as common sense, the idea that Halloween is the time of year when animal mutilations become more common.
That sort of thing doesn't seem all that likely in the modern Satanist Church, which shares more DNA with new age self-help philosophy than the P.A.G.A.N.s from the 1987 movie Dragnet. Religious animal sacrifice seems a little more plausible as a reason for black cats to disappear in areas like South Florida, where people practice Santeria. According to Santeria's official website, ritualistic animal slaughter is necessary if you want the spirits known as Orishas to show up to your party.
In 1993, the Supreme Court said animal sacrifices like those in Santeria were constitutionally protected. Still, despite animal rights groups occasionally targeting Santeria practitioners for reportedly killing dogs, sacrificing cats at Halloween seems to be an ugly rumor, according to activist groups like Canada's Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
The policy against letting people adopt black cats on Halloween does appear to be relaxing. In the early 2000s, some shelters started dropping the policy. The rationale seems to be that adopting a cat from a shelter is relatively difficult anyway, and you can find a stray cat pretty much anywhere.
Paul Miller, director of the Washington County, Maryland, Humane Society told a reporter for Capital News Service in 2003, "Cats are readily available, free on the street," adding, "Those are the ones I'm concerned about."
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