Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It's Black Cat Appreciation Month

October is Black Cat Awareness month. Calico, Persian, Siamese, Grumpy, gray, white, and tabby–none of these cats have their own month of awareness. So what makes black cats so special?

I'll admit black cat awareness sounded silly when I first read it online–like some kind of crazy Halloween-themed PETA gimmick. But while researching black cats, I found a long history of their misunderstood association with the occult; I read stories that told how all black cats were killed during the Middle Ages; and, saddest of all, I found recent statistics that indicate a lingering prejudice against black cats. I guess this shouldn't have shocked me–in the past, I've been guilty of prejudice too.

Over the past year, my friend Laura and I, getting in touch with our inner cat lady, periodically went kitty "shopping." Though these excursions ended in allergic reactions and ring worm, still we trekked from the SPCA, to Petco, to privately owned animal shelters, to adoption day at Pet Smart looking for the perfect cat: an orange one with white paws and the perfect personality.

We saw orange cats only sporadically, but our options for black cats were never lacking: everywhere ebony kitties gazed at us with green, blue, or yellow eyes. But after a while they all looked the same.

One evening at the Hotel for Cats and Dogs Animal Shelter, we found the perfect butterscotch cat named Sunny. He poked his white-tipped paws between the bars, teasing for attention. After charming us into opening the cage, he blinked up with yellow marble eyes and nonchalantly weaved around our legs.

As we followed him around the room, I suddenly noticed the cages holding almost a dozen black cats—half the cats in the room. All the same. A few rubbed against the cages and reached out their paws. But many lay still, barely lifting their heads to inspect us, as if they knew we'd passed by like so many other people had before.

Statistics in a Huffington Post article show that black cats are less than half likely to be adopted than lighter colored cats. Maybe because the dark color doesn't readily reveal their facial expressions or because it gives them less individual identity than a white or orange cat or because of the black cat's association with bad luck–whatever the reason, fewer people pay attention to the kitties blending in with the shadows of the cage.

That evening, following Sunny around as if he were a celebrity, I felt guilty. So determined to find a perfect match for my closed-minded specifications, I had passed by who-knows-how-many black cats, to my shame, because they looked the same–uninteresting, unremarkable. To ease my conscience, I went to each cage, stuck my hand in, rubbed their fur, let them bat at my fingers, murmured comforting things to them. Once up close, I noticed each one was different. Some were fluffy others were short-haired, some had tuxedo markings or small spots, and one had only a single white whisker.

But lying there not bothering to get up or to get our attention–somehow those kitties looked familiar.

I've seen those same gazes of resignation from dozens of "black cat" students, the reserved ones in my classes, some who've given up on being special enough to gain my attention in the shadow of the other outspoken or flamboyant students.

This year, determined to go out of my way to know all my students, I asked them all to write an interesting fact about themselves on their first quiz. I learned that one guy is a tumbler for the basketball pep team, one girl was born with an extra finger on each hand, another guy was a TV show stand in for Tom Hank's son, one girl is named after the Pink Power Ranger, another unassuming girl took the Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan, and one particularly quiet guy can spin a basketball on a pencil for three hours. On and on went the little accomplishments or quirky traits marking each student as an individual with a pattern, a color, a personality all his own. Flipping through those cards, I felt lucky to spend time with those special people each week.

Why are black cats so special that they get an entire month of awareness? Well, I don't know that they're so special–it's just that we're so blind we can't see that they're just as special as any other cat. I'm glad for a month dedicated to the awareness of black cats and thankful for the correlating reminder that we're each endowed with defining qualities–no matter how ordinary we appear.

Maybe this month you'll just as easily ignore animals or people who all appear the same, with nothing apparently outstanding about them. But whether you're at the animal shelter looking for a new pet or just looking at the unremarkable people surrounding you every day, don't be afraid to cross paths with the black cats and get to know them. You'd be surprised at how lucky they'll make you feel–during Black Cat Awareness month and every other day of the year.

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