WASHINGTON – There’s no reason to be scared of black cats and animal shelters concede that there’s no reason to be scared of the people who would adopt the cats, either.
After years of banning the adoption of black cats around Halloween, shelters across Maryland and the country are reversing themselves, admitting that there is no evidence that the animals are ritually mutilated or used as party props — the stuff urban legends are made of.
The agencies are increasingly abolishing or relaxing bans that had left hundreds of cats homeless in overcrowded shelters, saying more thorough screening before adoption is better than an outright ban.
“I think it was just sort of an instinctive thing to do,” said Aileen Gabbey, executive director of Maryland’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “You know, Halloween, black cats, let’s just be safe.”
Gabbey and other shelter directors said reference checks, interviews, home visits and rules prohibiting same-day adoptions help eliminate people with ill intentions.
That is one reason why Harold Domer, director of the Frederick County Animal Control Center, removed his center’s ban on October adoptions of black cats and dogs this year.
Domer said he was surprised to learn about the policy when he joined the center last October. It was too late to nix the rule then, he said, but he immediately decided to change the policy for future Octobers.
“I don’t want to stop adoptions. That’s our job,” Domer said. “I understand the concern for it (possible harm to animals), and I think it’s something interviewers and staff should be aware of. But . . . I don’t believe in a restriction if a family comes in and wants to adopt a black cat, but it’s October instead of March.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Deborah Sindell said the SPCA stopped advising a ban on such adoptions about two years ago.
Sindell said there are no statistics that show that black cats adopted from shelters around Halloween face a higher risk of harm. If cases do surface, they are rare.
“I’ve been checking with people in (the SPCA’s) adoption and animal science departments and no, there hasn’t been any instance where a witch . . . did anything with these black cats,” Sindell said. “There’s really no evidence.”
Paul Miller, executive director of the Washington County Humane Society, said that in his 30 years of working with animals he has never heard of an adoption resulting in torture.
“We have no data or experience to base that policy on,” he said. “Cats are readily available, free on the street. Those are the ones I’m more concerned about.”
Phil Stevens, an anthropology professor specializing in folklore at the University of Buffalo, said superstitions about capturing cats for rituals stem from centuries-old tales of voodooists and European witches who believed the animals were magical.
Legend says that a cat caught and killed at Halloween was especially powerful for a voodooist, Stevens said, but witches were said to share their powers with cats.
“People who were fearful that the black cat was carrying evil — they might be the ones that mistreat the cat, not the witches themselves,” Stevens said.
Despite a lack of evidence that black cats are being adopted just to be harmed, a few shelters said they still exercise bans or extra caution — just to be safe.
Emily Early, assistant manager of the Humane Society of Charles County, said the organization’s rule of thumb is to not release black cats just prior to Halloween. But she said the society would probably make exceptions for prior adopters or “if it’s an older couple versus a young teen-ager.”
“It depends on the circumstances,” Early said. “Unfortunately, you still have that possibility of someone doing something with a cat that you shouldn’t be doing.”