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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
During the Halloween season, we are bombarded with images of black cats on the heels of wart-nosed witches. Not only are black cats an essential part of Halloween decor and costuming, but they are present in almost all popular depictions of Halloween in film and television.
In many parts of the world, the black cat is a symbol of wealth and prosperity, but not so in the Anglo-American world.
As far back as the fourteenth century, the cat became closely associated with the Devil, in part due to its more-than-keen senses, silent walking, glowing eyes, and mysterious nature, all of which were seen as otherworldly. For a time, cats in general suffered at the hands of superstition, and thousands of cats were burned to death in England for allegedly being demons or witches’ familiars. This resulted in an increased rat population, which in turn led to the spread of the bubonic plague. After the plague tore through England, the role of cats as rodent control was acknowledged, and their reputation was mostly restored.
But for black cats, the association has lingered far into modern times. The black cat’s reputation has remained forever tarnished, probably because of its sleek shiny coat and the association of the color black with evil and demonic practices. The early American settlers took to accusing owners of black cats of witchcraft and sorcery, and black cats themselves were viewed as witch’s companions or spells conjured up to do ill deeds. This has led to the more modern superstition that black cats bring about general bad luck.
According to some myths, Halloween is the day of the year when the boundaries thin between our world and the next. Black cats, with their mystical association, become highly visible. Traditionally, the black cat was sought after as a semi-magical entity in order to aid in Halloween rituals — sometimes with cruel and unfortunate results.
While most modern Americans perpetuate the bad luck association for tradition’s sake and nothing more, some take the enigma surrounding the black cat very seriously. Many cat shelters refuse to adopt out black cats during the Halloween season. Cat owners are also often advised to keep their cats indoors for similar reasons.
While these rituals are few and far between, the fact remains that black cats are a misunderstood creature, especially as one of Halloween’s most visible representatives. And even where superstition is not a problem, it is a good idea, in general, to protect one’s cats by keeping them indoors and locked away. Cats are easily stressed by strangers and change, and hundreds of children roaming the night, asking for candy, dressed as ghouls and witches, certainly spells bad luck for them!
There is something fascinating about looking at portraits from centuries ago of people with their prized pets and seeing what sort of animal suited a particular person. Oftentimes you see royalty posing with their hunting hounds or lapdogs, their animals every bit the status symbols as the modern starlet’s. However, there is distinctly less variety in the animals seen in such portraits than is seen today. Usually there is a spaniel or two, perhaps a greyhound or wolfhound. Why, when there are thousands of dog breeds to choose from today, was there such a lack of variety then?
The answer is both unexpected and startling. According to the National Geographic documentary The Science of Dogs, just 100 short years ago, 88% of the current breeds of dog available today did not exist. Today, there are over 500 breeds of dog in existence, with new hybrids and designer pooches available every few years. Why the boom? Certainly dogs did not suddenly expand their mating horizons on their own.
During the Victorian era, humanity became obsessed with creating the perfectly functioning society, hence the industrial revolution and the sharply realized class system during that time. In this quest for perfection, man began exploring an idea called eugenics, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the science of improving [a population] by breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics.” Eugenics was a question of whether, in creating the most efficient society, man could also create the most efficient man by breeding out “undesirable” traits. While the study of eugenics on humans after the horrific ethnic cleansings of the last century (most notably the Holocaust) has fallen out of public favor, it is an idea that has remained alive and well for dogs.
While cats and other domesticated pets have also seen a boom in breed variety, there is a greater variety in dogs than in any other mammal. This is because dogs possess uniquely malleable DNA that allows specific genetic traits such as size, temperament, snout shape, tail length, etc. to be easily altered by selective breeding. In just a few short generations and breeding cycles, humans are now able to breed the perfect dog to suit their needs. But what is the effect on dogs as a whole?
A documentary produced by the BBC entitled Pedigree Dogs Exposed explores some of the downsides of human meddling in animal affairs in this arena. The film illustrates that, while humans are selectively mating dogs for specific traits, this has the unintended side effect of also breeding dogs for any negative traits that may come along with those genes. And as the breeding for the desired trait continues and becomes more focused, the harmful trait also becomes more focused. In creating the custom-made pooch, humans may also be creating genetically unhealthy animals.
This creates an interesting dilemma: humans have created an infinitely customizable pet, and yet, in our increasingly self-centered modern world of personalized technology and instant gratification, where will the customization all end? When does the welfare of the animal become more important than the aesthetic desires of his master?