Sunday, October 29, 2023

Halloween Black Cats Have a Bewitching History; Feral Cats are an Invasive Species

A witch on a broom with a black cat

As Much a Part of Halloween as Jack-O-Lanterns 
Have you ever wondered why or how black cats became a traditional part of Halloween imagery, decoration, and symbolism? Or why people dress up as black cats on Halloween?
I know I have.

I Ain’t Superstitious, But…
‘I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat crossed my trail.’ Those lyrics were written by blues great Willie Dixon in 1961 and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, Jeff Beck (with Rod Stewart), Santana (with Johnny Lang), and Megadeath; just to name a few. And the belief that bad luck will result from a black cat crossing one’s path is one of the oldest and most enduring superstitions that I know of. But why is it that we connect black cats to bad luck and witchcraft? Perhaps it’s because cats have been associated with magic since ancient times. Across medieval Puritan-Europe, cats; black cats in particular; were commonly linked to witchcraft and the devil. That association continued into the renaissance, when people believed that witches would transform themselves into black cats. Or that, if you came across a black cat, it might be a witch’s ‘familiar’; a supernatural entity or demon-possessed physical-animal believed to have been sent by the devil, to assist witches in the practice of black magic.

Before There was Halloween
Before there was Halloween, there was the celebration of Samhain; a Celtic festival marking the seasonal change from summer to fall; a time when many believed the natural barrier between our physical world and the spirit world would briefly open, allowing the spirits of the dead to return and enter the bodies of living people and animals. The returning spirits were especially attracted to black cats.

A witch and a cat

A witch and her cat. Weird Tales, Vol 36. Photo Credit: Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

A mythological Celtic fairy, the Cat-Sìth, said to resemble a large black cat, was believed to be a witch that would transform into a cat, in order to kill babies and children. It was also believed that the Cat-Sìth could steal souls. On Samhain, the Cat-Sìth would bless any home that left a saucer of milk out, for it to drink. But households that didn’t offer a saucer of milk were cursed. The association of the Cat-Sìth with Samhain likely carried over into Halloween.

 

The Inquisition and Beyond
On June 13, 1233, Pope Gregory IX published Vox in Rama; a decree which marked the beginning of the inquisition and church-sanctioned pursuits of heretics. Witch hunts. According to a number of narratives, one could be accused of witchcraft just for having a cat in his or her possession. Cats seen in the company of women were, as a matter of course, considered their familiars and both were put on trial, as enemies of the Church.

 

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared that the cat was the “devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.” His condemnation of cats resulted in thousands being burned to death. And many Christians actually came to believe that burning cats brought good luck. The belief in and fear of witches transmuting into black cats crossed the Atlantic with the Puritans. Modern American Halloween celebrations, with their tales of broomstick-riding-witches and their black-cat-companions, almost-certainly stem from these ancient beliefs; both Celtic and Puritanical.

Black cat face

Hank. Photo provided.

Homeless
Despite all the myths and imaginary dangers associated with black cats, a real threat to these dark-haired felines does exist. It’s difficult to come up with an accurate count but, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there are somewhere between 60- and 100-million homeless cats in this country. Approximately, 3.2-million cats end up in animal shelters every year; more than any other animal, including dogs. And, unfortunately, about 530,000 are euthanized because it’s more difficult to get cats adopted than dogs.

 

An Invasive Species
An invasive species is defined as any organism that causes or is likely to cause ecological or economic harm or endanger human health in an environment where it’s not native. Cats are domesticated animals and, as such, have no native range. Therefore, they’re considered a non-native, feral species when allowed to interact with native ecosystems. In effect, they function as an invasive species with tremendous impacts. All cats are predators, with an innate ability and desire to hunt.

A cat with prey, a bird

Black Cat with Prey. Photo Credit: Count Rushmore / Flickr.

A cat with a bird in its mouth

Cat Catching a Bird – Pablo Picasso 1939
Musée Picasso; Paris, France

In other words, all cats will hunt prey regardless of their socialization, if given the opportunity, making the domestic cat a threat to native wildlife species, when permitted to live or roam outdoors. A 2013-report published in the journal, Nature Communications, estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill a median of 2.4-billion birds and 12.3-billion mammals every year, with unowned, feral cats (as opposed to owned pets) causing the majority of the deaths. That makes feral cats the nation’s largest human-influenced source of mortality for birds and mammals.

 

Adopt a Cat
If you or someone you know is considering getting a pet; one you feel will be a good fit for you and your family; why not consider adopting a cat? For that matter, why not consider adopting a black cat? Evidently, it’s particularly difficult for shelters to place black cats.

If not, then consider donating to your local animal shelter or even asking about sponsoring a specific (black) cat until they can find the furry little critter a good home.

Photo at top: Halloween Postcard ca. 1910. Photo Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collection​.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.




6 Responses

  1. Walter Wouk says:

    The 2013-report published in the journal, Nature Communications, estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill a median of 2.4-billion birds and 12.3-billion mammals every year. The operative word here is “estimated.” It is not based upon an empirical study — it is, in fact a guess,
    nothing more — yet it’s widely cited.

    A 2014 State of the Birds report, published by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, noted that “habitat loss is by far the greatest cause of bird population declines.” A short article, Wildlife impacts of free-roaming cats Estimates vs. evidence,” by the National Feline Research Council, offers up a wider view of the issue. Here’s the link (https://tinyurl.com/kpudfbdh).

    • Boreas says:

      Walter,

      I agree. It is interesting that media demonizes feral and non-feral cats (a problem likely never to be solved – since the cat is out of the bag, so to speak), and tends to downplay sources of mortality and solutions that CAN be addressed, but have strong lobbies and political power behind them. Blaming the decline of birds on a predator is typical – it provokes clicks and sells media. Many birds do have the ability to adapt to predators in their territory – even new ones. They have been adapting for tens of millions of years. What they can’t adapt to are pesticides, loss of insect populations, building collisions, light disorientation, and destruction of nesting sites with habitat loss and fragmentation. These are things not built into their DNA.

      Don’t misunderstand me – I am all for reducing feral cat populations, neutering, and proper pet control, but we need to go after the low-hanging fruit that we can control with some political guts.

      • AG says:

        Pet cats are not normal predators. They get human help. Not the same.

        • Boreas says:

          True, but the birds don’t know that. They need to react to a domestic cat the same way as they would to a feral cat or they may die. Birds have evolved with many types of predators – including other birds – over the years. They recognize a cat as a predator. There are even sentry species that point them out to others with raucous alarm calls or mobbing.

          But they have not evolved to avoid structures placed in their flyways, flashing lights, automobiles, poisoned food, and significant declines in food and breeding habitat. Targeting pet cats and ignoring every other problem is not the solution – just as wiping out black cats didn’t rid the world of witches. Humans need to use their thinking caps and avoid misdirection from industries trying to protect their bottom line. It all depends on our true motivation.

    • AG says:

      One has nothing to do with the other. But both are problems.

  2. Jonathan says:

    tell me about the eyes .and if their your pet. and more history and they live

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