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Where’s The Love?

Humane Society tries to smooth the hard road to adoption for black cats.

Sleeping in a crate at the Montgomery County Humane Society with three other orphaned cats, 3-month-old Lark would seem to be the model of an adoptable cat. She is fuzzy, friendly toward people, and the domestic shorthair kitten has her life in front of her. There’s just one small problem with Lark: she’s black. In the numbers game that is animal adoption, that detail moves Lark and other cats like her to the proverbial back of the adoption line.

National statistics show that black cats are the least frequently adopted cats at animal shelters, and that trend holds true at the Montgomery County Humane Society.

“Generally the cats that have been here the longest, they’re always black cats,” said J.C. Crist, the president and CEO of the Montgomery County Humane Society. Crist’s group is taking measures to fight that trend: this month the County’s Humane Society is waiving all adoption fees for those who adopt a black cat.

Superstition isn’t the only color-based factor that keeps black cats in shelters longer than their colored compatriots. Potential adopters often are drawn to cats with more color because they are attracted to animals that stand out. Crist compares it to shopping.

“If you’re going down a shopping aisle, you’re going to look at the brightest thing that you see,” said Crist. Among the walls of cages full of cats in animal shelters, that often means that black cats fade into the background and are overlooked. As a result, 37 percent of all cats currently in the county's shelter in Rockville are either predominantly or completely black in color.

“The reason it’s so high is because they sit here the longest,” Crist said. For the same reason, said Crist, black dogs are the hardest canines to find homes for in his shelter as well.

“They’re just looked over,” Crist said of black cats. “It’s a number of things. Number one you’ve got the old superstitions — black cats are bad luck. Number two, they don’t have any distinguishing features, they don’t have any color, pattern; they just don’t show well,” said Crist. “Whether it be superstition or what have you — there’s no sizzle.”

EVERYONE KNOWS some variation of the old superstition that black cats are bad luck. A black cat crossing one’s path is supposed to be a bad omen, walking under a ladder after a black cat passes beneath the same ladder is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck. The unofficial list goes on, but for those who believe that superstitions are harmless, antiquated beliefs, they may only be partially correct.

According to petloveshack.com, a Web site that promotes animal adoption, the superstitions have surrounded cats since they became domesticated animals in the middle ages.

“For thousands of years, black cats have been regarded as mysterious creatures with supernatural powers and were associated with witches and even death,” petloveshack says. “It was believed that witches could change into cats; in fact, it is believed they could make that change nine times. Some believe this to be the origin of the belief that cats have nine lives. There are many superstitions associated with cats, partly because the cat has lived alongside humans for thousands of years. Superstitions centering around the black cat are some of the most well-known and popular superstitions today,” according to the Web site.

According to other superstitions, though, black cats are good luck. A black cat showing up on one’s doorstep bears good luck, as does letting a black cat into one’s home. Being approached by a black cat is typically a sign of good luck, while having a black cat turn its back on you is supposedly a bad omen.

Vanessa Casique of Gaithersburg perused the cat rooms at the Humane Society on Saturday afternoon. She said that she would consider a black cat even without the promotion.

“I would,” Casique said. “I don’t believe in superstition.” Casique said that she was just looking on Saturday but didn’t intend to adopt; she said she already owned a cat — a gray tabby.

KATHY DILLON is overseeing the black cat adoption program at the Humane Society this month. Dillon said that 11 black cats were adopted in the month of August in 2006; by Tuesday, August 21 of this year the Humane Society had found new home for 18 black cats this month.

Dillon said that part of the program’s goal is to disavow potential adopters of the notion that a cat’s color indicates a level of personality and that a subsequent lack of distinguishing features can mean a lack of character. To that end she has stressed the wide array of eye colors in black cats, which Dillon said are often various shades of coppers and greens. Black cats, Dillon said, are also often among the most affectionate cats.

Potential adopters have been attracted to the fact that they can get a cat that is spayed or neutered with out having to pay the usual fees, Dillon said. All potential adopters must still meet the Humane Society’s adoption standards and are still required to pay $17 for an identifying microchip to be inserted beneath the animal’s skin. Dillon said that an anonymous donor is paying for the alteration and adoption fees this month.

“We depend on private donations and the county’s residents are very generous, but we could always use more,” Dillon said.

Such donations are what is helping to move cats like Lark, who had a visitor Saturday morning and had an adoption application pending at The Almanac's presstime. Others are not so fortunate — Crist said that some black cats will stay in the shelter for as long as four months before they are either put into one of the County’s 230 animal foster care homes or are sent to the Humane Society’s overflow shelter for animals who have been at the shelter for an extended period of time and have not been adopted.

Unless the cats — and any other animal that comes to the shelter — are incurably ill, they are not euthanized as a matter of policy, Crist said.

“We’ve just had two people in that wanted to adopt black cats,” said Victoria Jones, a Humane Society volunteer at the rescue shelter in Rockville. Jones said that she has noticed an increased interest in black cats this month due to the adoption program.

Despite her color Lark still has the advantage of being a kitten, which adopters typically prefer, meaning that older black cats face the longest odds of being adopted.

Dillon said that the most popular cats among adopters are orange tabbies, as are pure-breds and unique breeds such as Himalayans and Maine Coons.

Crist said that he is happy with the program’s success so far and would like to see it spread to other localities and throughout the country.

Dillon said that she, too, is pleased, but not satisfied.

“We have seen more interest of black cats [this month], however we would still like to see more people come in and adopt them,” said Dillon.

“They’re the ones that spend the most time in the shelter, they’re the ones that are the hardest to adopt,” Crist said.