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Originally published April 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 28, 2008 at 5:48 AM

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Black cats unlucky at shelters

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...

Columbia News Service

NEW YORK — 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 nonprofit rescue group. "People just pass them by."

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 approximately 3,000 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 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, independent research has shown, causes the condition in humans.

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."

It is common practice among rescue organizations 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 shelter in Hector, Ark.

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.

And the Web site 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 adopt a black cat? "They are the least likely to be adopted."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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