Each year at this time, people who own black cats are warned to keep them safe from thieves who might want to use the cats for nefarious purposes. Keep your black cats indoors, owners are told, lest they be stolen and used in dark satanic rituals.
Whether caution is necessary or rooted merely in urban legend, some older news accounts remind us there are individuals who might think Halloween gives them freedom to terrorize or kill an animal for entertainment.
Even using an animal as party décor or for a prank is abuse, plain and simple. Animals don't appreciate the holiday and don't understand the symbolism that surrounds it. Like children, they can become frightened easily when seeing people in strange costumes and masks on the spookiest night of the year.
No matter how widespread the problem might be, the real fear of an animal being mistreated has caused some rescue agencies to refuse to allow anyone to adopt black cats the last few weeks before the holiday.
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"Black cats are off the market until Halloween," said Georjette Thomas, director of advancement at One of a Kind Adoption Center. Instead, the West Akron, Ohio, shelter is sponsoring a Double the Love program in which people may adopt one cat and get a buddy for it at no additional adoption fee.
Summit County, Ohio, Animal Control uses the same philosophy with all of the adoption applications it receives, especially this time of year, said Craig Stanley, director of administrative services for Summit County Executive Russ Pry.
"We pay attention to the conversation — for example, if they are specifically looking for a black cat — and we note the age of the person who wants to adopt. If the radar goes up, it would throw up red flags," said Stanley.
At the Lexington Humane Society, there are no special rules about the adoption of black cats at Halloween time. Adoption specialists screen adopters with the goal of placing animals in the right homes, said Madison Carey, director of development, adding that the agency adopts out about 5,000 animals a year.
"Our adoption specialists are trained and work to screen adopters," she said. "Our goal is to make sure the adopters are making a lifelong commitment and that animals are going in to their forever homes."
Dr. Alice Mills, owner of Lexington Hospital for Cats, is concerned about black cats at Halloween.
They are "the baby ducks of Easter. They have been singled out by cruel and superstitious people for abuse at Halloween. I recommend to all owners of black cats that they keep their cats indoors for the duration of the holiday," she said.
The association between black cats and Halloween dates back centuries to a time when people believed felines were really witches in disguise.
Halloween originated with ancient Celtic feasts of Samhain, or summer's end, when it was believed that spirits emerged from their resting places to roam the streets and play tricks on the living.
On that night, people would dress in costumes so any evil spirit lurking in the dark would not be able to recognize them. The spirits would be offered food and animal sacrifices.
Black cats were sometimes considered a witch's familiar — his or her supernatural servant — because they are largely nocturnal, roaming at night when people believed that evil lurked waiting to attack unsuspecting souls. Imaginations ran wild when the lack of knowledge prevented people from logically explaining what they couldn't understand.
Still, old traditions and superstitions die hard, and many rescue groups warn owners to pay special attention to the safety of their pets during the Halloween season.