Black Cats and Pit Bulls Face Discrimination over Breed and Color



Natasha, a 5-month-old black kitten (left), up for adoption through Anjellicle Cats Rescue. Tiger Lily, a 2-year-old female
pit bull (right), up for adoption at Mighty Mutts. Photos: Simone M. Scully.

Mackie is a two-and-a-half year old female black cat awaiting adoption at Anjellicle Cats Rescue. She likes watching TV, being brushed and cuddling while she naps. Tiger Lily is an excitable brown pit bull with black spots at Mighty Mutts dog rescue, also seeking a home. However, both animals might find it tougher to get placed in a home because black cats and pit-bulls are less popular choices for adoption, along with older and special needs animals.

Across midtown Manhattan, animal advocates and rescue groups are working to fight discrimination against certain pets, raise adoption rates and lower the number of animals euthanized in shelters. Due to Hurricane Sandy, animal rescue workers said the number of abandoned pets has significantly increased.

Lil Foot was a 3-month old kitten that was born without her left back paw and recently underwent a leg amputation. She is up for adoption through Anjellicle Cats Rescue. Photo: Simone M. Scully

“We aim to make adoption the first option for people looking to get a pet,” said Jane Hoffman, president of the Mayor’s Animal Alliance of New York City, at the holiday adoption event, “Whiskers in Wonderland” this month at the Union Square Petco. “We are hoping this will be spurred on by Hurricane Sandy because the more we can adopt out today, the more we can absorb rescues from the hurricane.”

There are an estimated 1,540,385 dogs and 1,725,000 cats in New York City, according to research by executive vice-president and science advisor for the ASPCA, Dr. Stephen Zawistowski. New York City leads worldwide in pet adoptions per capita, according to Merritt Clifton, the editor of “Animal People,” an independent investigative newspaper and website that is known for collecting data on animal issues, including shelter kill rates.

Still, last year, New York’s Animal Care & Control took in 31,561 cats and dogs and of these, 8,151, or 13 percent, were euthanized.   Though the euthanasia rate decreased over the last decade, animal activists argued the rate remains high and said animals could still find homes if city shelters were not so overcrowded. Anjellicle Cats Rescue, a non-profit rescue group that has about 300 adoptable cats, pulls approximately 90 percent of their rescues from the Animal Control & Care euthanasia list, with just hours left to live.

Animal rescuers hope to increase the number of pet adoptions due to the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which led to hundreds of animals being displaced or relinquished after their owners lost their homes.

However, some animals have a difficult time being placed simply due to their fur color or breed.

Mackie is a two and a half year old black cat up for adoption at Anjellicle Cats Rescue. Photo: Simone M. Scully

Black cats are notoriously difficult to place, leading some some groups to hold targeted adoption events, like “adopt a small panther,” said Maria Rodi, board member at the KittyKind cat rescue.  KittyKind cat rescue is an organization that rescues street and “friendly” feral cats around the city and displays their adoptable cats in 27 cages at the Union Square Petco.

“Black cats aren’t as common [as other colors],” said Rodi. “[But there’s] sort of this historical stigma that a black cat is bad luck. It’s the only color of cat that I’ve ever heard someone people say absolutely no to.”

“You also have to be very careful at Halloween [because] you see a lot of instances of black cats being hurt,” she added.

At the largest of the five locations for “Whiskers in Wonderland,” at Union Square, 29 solid black cats and kittens were up for adoption out of approximately 100 cats, far more than any other color cat.

Mikel Delgado, a doctorate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, worked at an animal shelter and noticed that people were less likely to adopt darker colored cats.  In a study published in the “Anthrozoos” journal, Delgado found people were more likely to assign positive personality traits, like ‘friendly’ to orange cats, which explains why they tend to be popular at adoption events.  While the study didn’t find that people were more likely to assign negative traits to black cats, as she had expected, it also found that people were not likely to assign positive personality traits to them either.

Pit-bulls also seem to suffer a certain stigma, branded as violent or dangerous. In the United States in 2011, according to Clifton of Animal People, 30 percent of shelter dog intakes were pit-bulls, and pit-bulls amounted to 60 percent of the dogs killed.

Tabby Jack, an elder male tabby that has feline herpes and epilepsy is up for adoption through KittyKind, Inc. Photo: KittyKind, Inc.

To many, including Clifton, people’s fears about pit-bulls are justified. His research over the last 30 years has shown that pit-bulls can be dangerous, if not lethal, if involved in an attack.

Others disagreed.

Tara Wallace, from the New York “Save-a-Bull Program,” argued that the breed suffers from myths spread about it, including that the dogs have “locking” jaws and are more likely to snap. In fact, The American Temperament Test Society, which tests all breeds based on their temperament, has shown that it-bulls consistently score above the average for all breeds in terms of their temperament.

Mighty Mutts, a Manhattan-based dog rescue group whose dog sanctuary was flooded by Hurricane Sandy, takes in many pit-bulls. This no-kill group, which has about 10 to 15 adoptable dogs at any one time, usually brings two or three dogs to the Union Square Petco on Saturdays to get them exposure.

“We don’t discriminate and we will help any kind of dog,” said Kit Efraimson, head of Mighty Mutts, “but we definitely tend to focus on pit-bulls because of how misunderstood they are and how many of them have been [mis]treated by their owners [or shelters].”

Mighty Mutts treated and rehabilitated Pedro, a pit-bull mix covered in sores and suffering from mange and hookworms while at a kill shelter for five months. Defying pit bull stereotypes, he is petrified of other dogs, leading Mighty Mutts to house him temporarily with cats at their cat adoption center, “Ollie’s Place,” in the East Village.

“With these dogs, their problems are people created, not animal or breed-related,” Efraimson said.

Pit bulls and black cats are among the most common to end up on the euthanasia list. Other animals on the list were ill, had behavioral problems or were feral, said Kathryn Willis, director of Anjellicle Cats Rescue.  Animals at several shelters suffer from the rapid spread of upper respiratory diseases because of overcrowding, which results in animals being pulled from the adoption center and moved to the sick ward.

“Once there,” explained Willis, “it’s usually only a matter of time before they make it to the euthanasia list.”

Misty is a 6-year-old beagle who was surrendered to Mighty Mutts and is one of many dogs that can be seen at the saturday adoption events in Union Square. She displays some food aggression so might be best in a home with no other pets. Photo: Simone M. Scully

Special needs animals are the most difficult to place in homes, such as Dorothy, a 4-month-old, grey and white tuxedo kitten, partially blind in both eyes due to feline herpes. She was rescued by the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, Inc. and was awaiting adoption at the “Whiskers in Wonderland” event.

Older animals can also be difficult to place, leading even pet stores to discount puppies as they age. Misty, a middle-aged beagle at six years of age, was surrendered to the rescue group after her owners had a baby and felt they could no longer care for her. She has been at Mighty Mutts rescue for several months, despite being present at the big Adoptapalozza in Union Square, held September 9, and weekly Saturday adoption events.

Regardless of the challenges faced by some of these adoptable animals, rescue workers remained optimistic.

“Somehow, it seems, they all find a place to go,” said Willis, from Anjellicle Cats rescue.” I always think someone must be looking out for us, because no matter what, no matter how many we pull [from kill-shelters], they always seem to find a home.”