Every year the warnings go out. Black cats should be kept indoors at Halloween. Many rescue groups avoid adopting out black cats in the weeks leading up to the day. It is one thing for people of the Middle Ages to avoid or fear black cats, they were operating in a time full of dark phenomena not understood and long before modern science. They believed the Pope when he said black cats were used in Satanic rituals. And why not? Isn’t that just what the rescue groups are fearful of today, that some poor cat will be tortured in some misguided attempt to please the devil or conjure a demon?
The villain in the story is not the fearful folk of the Middle Ages or even the Pope. The villain is ignorance. Some of it is just stubborn prejudice, too. I think while many modern people who dislike cats don’t actually think they’re minions of Satan cats make them feel insecure. “There’s always going to be someone in a group who’s going to stand up and say cats are aloof, manipulative little devils,” says cat researcher John Bradshaw. And some people plain outright hate cats at a level which is almost irrational. In a book I have, written by by Carl Van Vechten in 1922, The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat he states “One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H.G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand….Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree.”
One of the problems is that even though cats are “domesticated” they still retain their ability to be independent. You have to earn a cat’s affection and respect. Wolves and dogs don’t get along because wolves instinctively recognize dogs have transferred their allegiance to an alien species. Genetic manipulation has turned the dog into a dependent and subservient creature. Many breeds of dogs would find it impossible to survive if left to their own devices because of physical changes humans made to them. For the most part the domestic cat has not been tinkered with any where near as much as the dog. Without a caption to tell the cat at right was a wild species, considered by some the forerunner of the domestic cat, many would think it a pet. Some long haired breeds would have a hard time as feral cats because of the impossibility of maintaining their coats, hairless breeds would probably suffer from cold and lack of skin protection and flat faced breeds might be subject to respiratory problems, but for most cats these things are not an issue. This is why colonies of feral cats proliferate unless TNR is undertaken.
Cats are cautious but not fearful. This is why there are fewer instances of cat bites than dog bites.(1) Cats will go out of their way to avoid unpleasant contact, whether with humans, other cats or other non-prey animals. In my experience many cat bites occur when people try to touch or handle feral cats, and because so many people let their pet cats run free, it can be hard for people, especially children, to know the difference. This is not a reason to hate cats. This is a reason to change the way we care for cats. Keeping cats as indoor only pets is one way to prevent them suffering illness or injury or coming into contact with people that may harm them or handle them inappropriately, like children.
It also solves another problem, the issues raised by bird lovers and other concerned environmentalists. Although, in truth most species under threat are in that position due to human activity, the finger is often pointed at cats. But indoor cats are no threat to birds or any other wild creature. And outdoor cats would be far less of a threat to wildlife if they were all spayed or neutered and not continuously reproducing. In my experience it is the same people who let the cat roam who also feel “getting him fixed” is somehow unnecessary or wrong. While these people obviously don’t hate cats, they just provide fodder for those who do.
So this Halloween, think about cats, and black cats in particular, not as the devil’s minions, but as the soft, cuddly, soothing, purring companions they can be. My cats are friendly and affectionate and know when I am sad or feeling ill. Many other people know the joy and value of cat companions. Let’s keep them safe and healthy and if not any other time at least in this season, keep them in.