Black cats, their history, reputation, and why they languish in shelters

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In October every year the Halloween decorations start coming out; jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, vampires, witches, and black cats hang on walls and in windows everywhere we go. There are stories for all of these elements and their associations with the Halloween tradition, but the one with strong repercussions in animal shelters across the country is the story behind black cats.

The statistics are there. The highest percentage of cats coming into shelters is the solid blacks – approximately 33% of intakes every year – and anecdotal evidence will tell you the black cats are the hardest to place as well as the ones most likely to get euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.

Why?

Well, opinions run the gamut, but one of the most common is the black cats' association with superstitions and evil omens. An interesting idea, because when we take a closer look at the origins of black cats' reputation as harbingers of bad luck and the magical assistants of witches, these guys really did draw the short straw.

Animals and magic in the ancient world

Let's start with early humanity, where we'll see the ancient world had a reverence for all animals. Thirty-thousand-year-old paintings on cave walls in France show prehistoric man was interested in horses, bison, deer, wolves, and birds as well as cats. Fast forward a few thousand years, and your ancient societies in Egypt, Greece and Rome did not discriminate in their love for animals either.

Animals and gods

In fact, the ancient Egyptians, while they did have a reverence for cats because of their association with the goddess Bastet, also had a reverence for crocodiles, baboons, ibises, hawks, hippopotami, and cattle because of their association with various gods.

Greek and Roman gods had their animals too. Zeus, king of the gods, was connected to the eagle. Hera had her peacock and Athena had her owl. Artemis was often depicted with a doe, while her brother Apollo could be seen with dolphins. Rome, which adopted many of the Greek gods, also adopted their corresponding animals, and the idea of animal sanctity carried over into the early Middle Ages.

Animals as magical beings

And because these ancient societies associated animals with deities, they attributed magical properties to animals as well. Not just cats, but all animals were treated with awe, and watched closely for signs they were passing along messages from the gods. And not just cats, but all animals were included in ceremonies or rituals associated with their corresponding gods.

For example, ancient Egyptians kept a sacred bull in the Temple of Ptah they worshipped as a messenger from their great god of wisdom. The Apis Bull, as this sacred animal was known, lived in the temple, was cared for by the temple priests, participated in rituals, and when it died, was mummified and buried with great honors in the Serapeum – a necropolis dedicated solely to these sacred animals. A period of deep mourning always followed the death of an Apis until a new sacred bull was found.

Witchcraft and familiars

As we moved away from the ancient world and into one dominated by the prevalence of Christianity, the awe people felt for animals started shifting as well. Some animals retained their sacred nature because of their appearance in the Bible – the dove and the fish being two such examples – but, on the whole, animals were increasingly viewed as beasts of burden or terrifying nuisances hiding in the dark.

And speaking of the Bible, the Old Testament book Leviticus is credited, in part, with the witchcraft scare of the medieval and early modern periods and with the association of animals with witches. Verse 27 in Chapter 20 states any man or woman who "hath a familiar" and performs magic shall be executed (by stoning).

Animals as familiars

In this text, the word "familiar" literally means "household servant," and so, the world of the first millennium CE interpreted the passage to mean women or men with animal companions acting as their magical servants. An entire ethos was built around witch familiars in the early medieval period that carried into the witchcraft scares of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the key is the types of animals often considered to be witch familiars.

Guess what? There were far more options than black cats, although they were a contender. Black dogs were also common – almost as common as black cats, actually – as were rabbits, bats, snakes, and all different kinds of birds. Women who kept pet frogs, lizards, ferrets or mice were suspicious. And you really needed to stay away from other options like snails and livestock if you didn't want to be accused of witchcraft.

Why black cats?

And yet, for some reason, the cat has retained a prominence throughout history. It is common knowledge that the ancient Egyptians "worshipped" cats, but many don't know they actually revered all animals. And practically everyone can tell you a black cat is a witch's familiar, but many may not know any animal could be a familiar – the animal in question often depended on the accused witch's circumstances.

So why black cats?

My theory is that the reputation stems from our relationship with cats. For one, domestic cats are in our reach; if we need an outlet for our fear of witchcraft, and the witch's use of an animal to work evil magic, we can get hold of a cat to punish. Grabbing a bird or a mouse is another story altogether.

On this same note, cats are familiar to us (as in, we know them) because they are part of our everyday lives. Many of the other animals in the ancient world pantheons are exotic – how many people do you know who own an ibis? Or a baboon? Or a hippopotamus? Therefore, we can better understand the ancient world's connection to cats because we have them ourselves.

Secondly, cats have remained largely mysterious to us because of their solitary and independent nature. Even though dogs were right there alongside cats as objects of reverence in the ancient world, and as familiars of witches in the first millennium CE, our relationship with dogs is different. We have more control over dogs, they respond to us and our demands, and the work they do for us is more visible (i.e., security and fetching).

Cats, while we have appreciated their role in keeping vermin populations down, are just not as supportive, as it were, of our daily existence. At least historically.

Black cats in shelters

See what I mean when I said black cats drew the short straw? Their history as objects of worship and later objects of fear, coupled with their biological nature, have all contributed to their status as the number one pet in animal shelters. And that's why I encourage anyone considering the adoption of a cat to think about bringing home a solid black one.

Their coats may be the color of midnight, but their eyes can range from rich green and ice blue to soft silver and copper. And many species of black cats, like the Bombay, are bred for sleek bodies and limbs, giving them the appearance of miniature panthers, not to mention affectionate and easygoing personalities.

So, I say, toss out those black cat Halloween decorations and adopt one of the thousands that are living in shelters. Who knows? Maybe your new cat will bring you good luck.

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