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Black cats finish last

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Patti-cakes, a tortoiseshell, and Wickets, her daughter, await adoption at a S.A.R.A. adoption event in an Old Bridge, N.J. Petco. An adoption request was put in for Patti-cakes. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

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Mary Roland, a S.A.R.A. volunteer and foster "parent," holds Missy, a black kitten who has been overlooked for adoption at the Old Bridge, N.J. Petco. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

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Percy, at the Old Bridge, N.J. Petco, was rescued with seven other cats. As the only black cat, he is the only one left. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

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Alexandra, left, will be adopted if the application goes through while Parker, right, is left behind at the Old Bridge, N.J. Petco. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

Dozens of cats were lined up in cages at a Petco in Old Bridge, N.J., on a recent Saturday afternoon, much as they are most weekends at adoption events and shelters across the country. Percy tumbled playfully, while Parker snoozed in his litter pan, curled up with his cage mate, Alexandra. Chester gamboled about nearby.

Alexandra, a calico, and Chester, a brown tabby, received adoption applications, but Percy and Parker weren’t so lucky. They’re at a significant disadvantage in the adoption market, because they’re black.

“Black cats don’t get adopted nearly as frequently as other colors,” said Kathleen Fram, the co-chair of adoptions for the Summit Animal Rescue Association, or S.A.R.A., a non-profit rescue group that shows its cats in Old Bridge each Saturday. “People just pass them by.”

Black cats make up around 40 percent of the more than 500 cats S.A.R.A. finds homes for each year, said Fram, but they take twice as long to find homes as the cats with more popular colors and patterns.

A 2002 study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science that examined adoption rates over nine months in a California pound found that black cats were about half as likely to be adopted as tabby cats and two-thirds less likely than white cats. But for cats in general, the odds are not good: of the three thousand cats of all colors offered for adoption during that time, only around 600, or 20 percent, found homes. Those remaining were euthanized.

Nationally, the Humane Society estimates that three to four million cats enter shelters each year, said Nancy Peterson, the feral cat program manager at the Humane Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. Of that number, only half are adopted – the rest, including disproportionate numbers of the less-adoptable black cats, are euthanized.

Black cats are considered bad luck in most western cultures and have been associated with witchcraft for centuries. They’ve been portrayed in literature as everything from T.S. Elliot’s clever, phenomenal, “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat,” vilified by his master as “the hideous beast whose craft seduced me into murder.”

While the cats themselves may not cause bad luck, they are certainly unlucky. And from an evolutionary point of view, this misfortune is a genetic accident. At some point in their evolution, a mutation developed in the domestic cat’s genetic code that caused the familiar stripes on a cat hair to be replaced by solid black, reported a 2003 study in “Current Biology” by the scientists involved in the National Cancer Institute’s Feline Genome Project.

A black cat gets its coat from a combination of the dominant form of the “brown” gene, which controls the darkness of the hair pigment, a dominant “dense” gene, ensuring complete coverage of the hair, and the mutated, recessive “agouti” gene, that normally would produce banding on the hair, said Dr. Marilyn Menotti-Raymond, a staff scientist at Institute’s Laboratory of Genetic Diversity and one of the study’s authors.

Partial mapping of the cat genome was announced in November 2007, and the full sequence should be completed by early summer, said Menotti-Raymond. Once complete, the genome may prove invaluable in understanding and treating hereditary diseases, both in cats and in humans. They have already isolated the gene that causes a form of retinal atrophy in cats: the same gene, independant research has shown, causes the condition in humans.

Project scientists also hope to find the genes that determine a cat’s patterning. “We don’t yet know why the tiger gets its stripes,” Menotti-Raymond said.

While a black coat is advantageous for a nocturnal hunter, it’s unfortunate for a domesticated cat seeking a home. An obvious reason would be superstition, but S.A.R.A’s Fram disagrees. “I don’t think it’s witchcraft or anything,” she said. “I think it’s because they’re plain.”

At the Old Bridge adoption event Cuddles and Snuggles, two solid black brothers, were overlooked despite the sign reading “No one ever looks at us because we are black and considered plain.” Nearby, Brian, a silvery tabby with white ‘tuxedo’ markings, purred his way to three adoption requests. Even black kittens like Missy, who grabbed attention by snagging cat-shoppers with her paw, were passed over.

But others would still blame superstition. “It’s the age-old stigma of ‘don’t let a black cat cross your path,’ or that black cats are bad luck,” said Gail Churchill, the vice-president of Island Cat Resources and Adoption in Alameda, California.

It is common practice among rescue organizations like Churchill’s to stop allowing black cat adoptions during October, to prevent them from being used as party props and returned, or, as urban legend has it, sacrificed on Halloween. “We don’t adopt our black kitties out during October – we just won’t take that chance,” said Kathy Jentsch of the Purr-fect Sanctuary, a small shelter in Hector, Arkansas.

But some shelters are working to change a black cat’s luck, said the Humane Society’s Peterson, by featuring them prominently at adoption events, ensuring that the black beauties have the perfect lighting and spacing them apart so that they are seen as individuals. One shelter Peterson talked to recently held a Friday the 13th adoption event featuring only black cats--a ‘lucky black cat’ weekend. The Island Cat group features a “Did you know?” plaque publicizing the black cats’ plight, which has helped them find potential families, said Churchill.

And the website of the Kitten Rescue group lists the top 10 reasons to adopt a black cat. Number nine: “A lint brush isn’t required for a black-tie affair.” Number eight: “Holding a black cat is very slimming.” And the number one reason to take a black cat home? “They are the least likely to be adopted.”

E-mail: elm2128@columbia.edu