A strange story has been haunting Google News. Titled, “Black Cats are ‘Lucky’ After All,” the story reports on a study conducted by Petplan, a pet insurance company. According to a review of claims filed by Petplan customers, black cats seem to be less likely–15 percent less likely–to suffer an accident or injury than felines of other colors.
This press release-cum-wire story has been reprinted verbatim on all sorts of websites. (I have been unable to find any trace of the original report or to examine the data or methodology myself.) Needing an angle to justify the story, perhaps, the spin has been this: “Halloween conjures images of mysterious black cats that cross paths and bring bad luck. According to Petplan pet insurance, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Among the cat population, black cats are the least accident-prone, resulting in the lowest number of pet insurance claims.”
Color me confused. I thought that the whole superstition behind black cats was that they bring you–the human observer–bad luck when they cross your path. Not that the felines themselves are the victims of bad luck. (Indeed, one would think that if black cats did have supernatural powers, they could use these powers to avoid accidents and injuries, no?)
Putting all this ridiculousness aside, however, the story did get me thinking about a real phenomenon–the struggles of unwanted black pets. According to anecdotal reports, black cats and dogs are adopted less frequently than animals of other colors, and a few peer-reviewed studies have supported this idea.
Why might that be? I think it’s a stretch to say that it has to do with superstition (though some have argued just that). One possibility, experts say, is that black dogs, particularly big ones, might seem especially scary. Others have proposed a far more prosaic explanation: In dimly light animal shelters, black dogs and cats just fade into the background.
Personally, my pet theory (no pun intended) is that the lower adoption rates may have something to do with the fact that animals with black coats simply don’t have much contrast around their faces. Pets’ often dark eyes and coal-colored noses may just not stand out against a black face. Much research has shown that animals’ facial features, particularly the eyes, are important in attracting human attention; it’s the wide eyes of baby animals, for instance, that make them seem “cute.” Perhaps these facial features simply stand out less–and therefore attract less human attention, particularly in a quick scan of many animals–when they’re surrounded by black fur.
The lower adoption rate of black pets remains something of a mystery, but unraveling that puzzle is just one piece of a larger research question: Why do humans love some animals–and species–so much and care so little about the rest? This issue is gaining increasing attention, and it’s one worth keeping your eye on in the coming years–the answers will have implications not only for pet adoption but also for animal conservation worldwide. (It’s no secret that the “cute” and “charismatic” species–think dolphins and pandas–get the bulk of the attention.) Do I see an Adopt A Star-Nosed Mole campaign in our future?
Postscript: Whatever its cause, the problem with coal-colored pets is now such accepted wisdom that some have made a special effort to draw attention to our dark-haired cats and dogs. Good strategy: The website Black Pearl Dogs. Bad strategy: A flier like the one issued by a Virginia shelter, trying to drum up interest in the shelter’s unwanted “black babies.”
Post-postscript: If you want to adopt a black cat, you may need to wait until after Halloween. Some shelters ban the adoption of black cats around the holiday, worried that the felines may be adopted purely to serve as holiday props–or sacrifices Satanic rituals. (Cue spooky music.) I suspect this worry is greatly overblown–if anyone’s got any compelling evidence to the contrary, send it my way–but the policies exist nonetheless.