Dr. Catsby

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This Halloween, Hug a Black Cat for Luck

This Halloween, Hug a Black Cat for Luck

One lazy Saturday morning, as Jade and I were relaxing with coffee and a book, the doorbell rang. It was a Jehovah’s Witness come to hand out her literature. I’m not religious, although I’ve spent enough time canvassing and cold-calling that I empathize, so I opened the door with a smile. But, when she caught sight of inky-black Jade weaving between my ankles beneath my moon-printed maxi skirt, the church lady got spooked and quickly ended our conversation.

I doubt she actually thought I was a witch, though she might have picked up on the hints that I wouldn’t ultimately be receptive. But still, at this time of year, it becomes increasingly apparent how strongly we associate these specifically-pigmented felines with the supernatural and occult. Where did the myth come from? And, aside from Halloween decorations, how does it affect modern life?

Scapegoats for the Black Death pandemic

Although it’s hard to identify exactly why black cats first got their bad reputation, it dates back to the middle of the 14th century – the Middle Ages. Back then, these kitties were so strongly associated with the devil, Europeans killed nearly all of them off in an effort to stave off the Black Death. Unfortunately for them, it probably only made the plague spread faster. The deadly disease was carried by rats, which the cats would’ve continued to hunt. It just goes to show that nothing good can come of scapegoating kitties.

Where there are witches, there are cats.

Black cats’ next big comeback in Europe arrived with the 16th century and widespread paranoia about witchcraft. Among the religious set, the association between the devil and black cats still lingered. So, when chatter began about women making deals with the devil, the gossip mill churned out images of black-clad women with black cat companions. Eventually, the concept of a witch’s familiar gained steam, and the tale in the popular consciousness depicted frightening witches transforming into their feral companions by the full moon. The myth spread across the ocean to the colonial United States, where black cats were collateral damage during panics like the Salem Witch Trials.

Certain happy exceptions

When it comes to black cats’ reputation, it’s not all bad news. Most of us heard in elementary school about the ancient Egyptians’ spiritual reverence for cats of all colors. In that civilization, you could face capital punishment for killing a kitty. The goodwill spread to European sailors and fishermen, who kept black cats on board their ships and at home with their wives for good luck. In certain parts of Great Britain, black cats are a lucky wedding gift for brides. And in Japan, black cats are seen as a good luck charm for everyone, but especially single women hoping to attract a future husband. In fact, in Himeji, Japan, the popular cat café trend is specialized just for lucky black cats at a café called Nekobiyaka.

Bad repercussions for shelter cats?

Animal rescue workers swear up and down that black cats (and dogs) are adopted at a lower rate than their multi-colored counterparts. Numbers from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals don’t bear this out, but it’s not all good news. Black cats are euthanized at a higher rate than other kitties, and they’re also brought into shelters at a higher rate. So, promotional efforts on the part of shelters, like free adoptions on Black Cat Appreciation Day every August 17th (mark your calendar!), are still a great idea.

Not even skin-deep

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention that all this mythology and stigma over the color of cats’ fur is based on a difference as superficial as, well, fur color! Black fur isn’t specific to any one breed of cat – 22 breeds can present with it. But, there is one potentially-exciting biological difference between black cats and cats of other colors. Some scientists suspect that the gene that causes black fur might make these kitties more resistant to diseases. There are even some researchers trying to map black cat genomes in more detail as part of research to cure HIV!

What’s the takeaway?

You could probably guess from the beginning this this would be my conclusion: Let’s all cuddle a black cat today.

Happy Halloween from Hannah and Jade!

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