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Fears Prompt Shelters to Suspend Cat Adoptions for Halloween

A cat at the shelter awaits in its cage. Most reported abuse in this area has been hearsay. (By Susan Biddle The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 1999; Page B1

Poor Beauty. He whines from the cage where he's stuck for a week behind a card that announces, among his other vital stats, that he's been "altered."

At any time, the tabby in the next cage might be adopted. The anxious gray shorthairs bunked below could find a home at any moment. Even the frazzled beige Himalayan at the end of the row might get lucky.

Not Beauty. Until Halloween's over, he stays put--staring through the bars with his green eyes, another black cat singing the holiday's blues.

Every year the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, where Beauty and the other "strays" and "give ups" are being gently cared for this week, suspends the adoption of black cats over the Halloween season.

In fact, for years animal shelters and humane societies from coast to coast have held black cats--and lately white ones, too--in a kind of protective custody around Halloween. No adoptions are permitted until Monday.

There have been cat abductions at this time of year, you know, and mutilations and abuse and various "occult" goings-on, so the story goes. People want black cats at Halloween for diabolic rites, for house decoration, to fill out a costume, etc. etc.

The poor critters, caught up for the past 300 years in humanity's dark paranoia--they were said to be among the "familiars," or tools, of a witch--are now, to some extent, victims of an annual modern panic.

To be sure, there are some sound reports of abuse.

George Whiting, assistant director of the Prince George's County Animal Shelter, which also has the adoption ban in place, said there were such Halloween cases when he was employed at an animal shelter in Norfolk six years ago.

"We found bodies of cats that had been pretty inhumanely slain, badly treated, pretty much slaughtered or used for sacrificial purposes," he said. "We had a couple of instances. I was there 13 years."

Valerie Bedziner, a spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in New York, which also suspends black cat adoptions, noted, "Halloween is basically the time of the year when the veil between the living or material world and the spiritual is supposed to be the thinnest."

So suspicions are everywhere.

In Phoenix, black cats have been disappearing at a high rate since August, said Lillian Dubois-Tercero, director of Arizona Pet Line, a nonprofit lost and found service. "As of today we have 26 black cats missing from an area within a 15-mile radius" of north-central Phoenix, she said yesterday.

It could be a buildup to Halloween, she said.

Several years ago, a similar occurrence was reported near New Orleans. And annual Halloween rumors of black cats' involvement with "ritualistic things" and "satanic holidays" have surfaced from Albany to Los Angeles.

Locally, though, a lot of it is hearsay.

"Personally, I am not aware of any kinds of problems with black cats specifically at Halloween," said Sharon Kessler, executive director of Montgomery County's Humane Society and Animal Shelter. Not one in the decade she's been director, nor in the 26 years she's been with the shelter.

"Only rumor and innuendo," she said, "nothing personally."

"The nature of the ban is to have a better-safe-than-sorry policy," she said in an interview at the shelter. "Due to the recommendations of the national organizations who may have seen problems in other areas, we observe the ban."

Ditto in Prince George's. There is concern for the animals, Whiting said, but no real abuse has been found lately.

Dug Hanbicki, an issues specialist in the companion animals division of the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington, said that while she, too, had not personally encountered such incidents, "I believe it's a very real risk."

"Even if the shelters are not seeing these animals," she said, "it is still occurring, but it is not being reported."

But Silver RavenWolf, a longtime Harrisburg, Pa., area witch, or Wiccan priestess, said yesterday she had never heard of Halloween black cat abuse. "I'm curious as to whether it's hysteria or it is an urban legend or if there's some basis in fact," she said.

RavenWolf said there had been some local pet abuse around Halloween several years ago. "The first thing they wanted to talk about was that this was a cult thing," she said. "It wasn't. It was a teenager high on crack. They're always looking for a scapegoat.

"I've met thousands of magical people, and I don't think a single one of them would be interested in hurting a cat, no matter what color its fur was," she said. "Most of the magical people that I know actually adore animals and actually have quite a few."

The black cat has been associated with Halloween and ill fortune for most of the holiday's history because of its legendary link to witches, said Alison D'Amario, director of education at the Salem (Mass.) Witch Museum.

The cat was seen as one of the witch's familiars, animals that would allegedly be used to torment other people, D'Amario said Monday from the town where 19 people were executed during the infamous witch trials of 1692.

People "believed that these were imps that had magic powers," she said, and "attached themselves to the witch because she had made a pact with the devil."

The front piece of a 1647 book, "The Discovery of Witches," by England's witch finder general, Matthew Hopkins, shows a series of familiars, including a weird dog with horns, a black rabbit and a small white cat. Black was added later because of its association with darkness.

RavenWolf, 43, an author who said she has a husband and four children and has been a witch for 19 years, said many Wiccans still cherish icons of their beliefs, such as cauldrons and the traditional, old-fashioned broom.

As for cats, "a lot of Wiccans and magical people have cats," she said.

"They consider them part of the family."

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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