Even though everyone knows that black cats are the foot servants of Satan, this bit of common knowledge will probably not, by itself, prevent black cats from being adopted at animal shelters. That’s because the so-called “black pet bias” — a popular aversion to those more inky, shadow-dwelling black cats and dogs languishing in animal shelters across the superstitious U.S.A. — may be a completely made-up phenomenon.
Believers of the black pet bias, much like the superstitious pet connoisseurs they criticize, cite anecdotal evidence about why prospective pet adopters seem to generally avoid black dogs and cats. Black-furred pets, some volunteers argue, are euthanized more often than their more prismatic counterparts, probably because black pets are really hard to gussy up with Photoshop on the pet adoption website. Shelter works can also be uncharitable towards the supposed cultural superstitions town folk have about black cats, namely, that black cats are bearers of bad luck.
Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of hard data to support some of these claims of black pet bias, but two recent studies from the ASPCA — one looking at people’s reasons for adoption and another tracking animals’ length of stay on the shelter floor — went a long way towards debunking the idea of a pervasive black pet bias. That whole thing about black pets lingering longer at the shelter before inevitably being euthanized? Actually, it most likely has nothing at all to do with people avoiding the inherent maleficence of black pets — Dr. Emily Weiss, the ASPCA President of Shelter Research, says there probably just more black pets in the animal population, and prospective adopters are definitely not interested in getting a pet that looks like most of the other pets.
According to researcher Marion Zuelfe, one reason black pets might not get adopted as quickly is that people generally privilege uniqueness as the most important pet adoption quality:
If a shelter has 10 black dogs and one white dog as compared to one black dog and 10 white ones, the length of stay will probably be different for the black dog in each case. The adopter might be more drawn to the unique dog whether that is the one white dog out of 10 black ones or the one black dog out of 10 white ones.
That still sounds like a bit of a biased way to make a decision, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of data to suggest that people are actively avoiding black pets. Some shelter workers, though, insist that their observational data points to a broader cultural bias, an abiding belief that black cats are all either transformed warlocks or harbingers of doom, waiting for their opportunity to cuddle up on your pillow at night and drink up your soul, breath by breath.
Image via AP, Kyle Ericson