Halloween is a festival many of our pets could do without. Our dogs and cats don't appreciate the symbolism and revelry of All Hallow's Eve; to most of them the evening is a frightening collage of trick-or-treaters and party-goers who noisily shuffle from house to house, pound on doors, and engage in a variety of mischief. Even worse, pets who remain outside on Halloween are subject to becoming the targets of pranks ranging from the comic to the cruel.
Black cats, beware.
Long associated with witches, bad luck and the dark side, black felines are often used for pranks, party props and even satanic, sacrificial rituals around Halloween.
"This is a time when blood rituals take place," said Hedy Litke, director of animal placement at the ASPCA. "Black cats are often sacrificed." Such is their popularity that many shelters in New York and around the country ban adoptions of black cats in the weeks and days preceding
Oct. 31to protect them from potentially grisly endings.
Unfortunately, Halloween has also been a time when some people acquire pets — particularly cats — to use as living decorations or for displays of fun and sport, only to discard or abandon them afterwards (as often happens with chicks and rabbits at Easter time). Accordingly, many animal shelters have taken steps in recent years to limit or eliminate the adoption of cats in the days leading up to Halloween by either deferring feline adoptions until after Halloween or by more carefully scrutinizing the prospective adopters.
One of the more widely-cited justifications for the implementation of more stringent adoption policies by animal shelters around Halloween is the claim that cats in general — and black cats in particular — are avidly sought by members of "satanic cults" who engage in the mutilation, torture, and killing of cats in celebrations associated or coincident with Halloween. That animal shelter policy has been influenced by a widespread belief in satanic cat-sacrificing rituals at Halloween is beyond dispute; the issue here is whether such activity is really as prevalent as the belief in it is.
First of all, depending upon which source you believe, the alleged practice of sacrificing black cats began with "Druid priests," "pagans," or the (Christian) "Church":
More than 2,000 years ago, in the area we know now as Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, Druid priests capitalized upon such fears by nurturing the belief that evil spirits were responsible for bringing about the advent of cold weather and shorter hours of daylight. To placate the spirits, the priests initiated a festival honoring Samhain, the lord of the dead. The festival was on
Oct. 31,the day before the beginning of the Celtic new year.
This "new year's eve" celebration gradually grew to ominous proportions. The priests ordered the people to extinguish all hearth fires and to gather around huge bonfires on hilltops. The fires were intended to frighten away the evil spirits and to honor the souls of people who had died during the past year. Religious rituals performed around the bonfires were followed by processions back into the villages, where embers from the large fires were used to reignite the hearth fires in each home.
The notion then developed that the souls of sinful persons, as well as all other evil spirits, were at large in the community during that night. To discourage these mysterious entities from acts of retribution, sacrifices were thrown into the bonfires. At first, the sacrifices were domesticated animals. Horses were popular because they were believed to be sacred to the Sun God, who needed attention because he was punishing the people by giving them fewer hours of daylight.
Black cats were a favorite sacrifice because they were thought to be evil spirits transformed into animals.1
Sacrificing cats began in medieval times, when the Church decreed that felines were friends of the devil. With their darting eyes and sinister-looking coats the color of death, black cats became known as witches' mascots. They also were known as "familiars," through which witches could communicate with the spiritual world.2
(Note that we do not offer the above quotations as valid historical accounts, but merely as examples of popular contemporary explanations as to why people supposedly sacrifice black cats at Halloween.)
When questioned about their October policies, most animal shelter and humane society representatives affirm their belief that steps are necessary to prevent cats from becoming sacrificial Halloween victims but offer no tangible evidence that the phenomenon is real beyond their belief in it:
"As horrible as this may sound, cats are tortured around Halloween time," said Deborah Thomas, executive director of the Maryland SPCA, which for years has enforced a virtual moratorium on black cat adoptions in the days before Halloween. "It's just incredible what people will do to cats, as if they don't have any feelings." Although concrete information on Halloween cat cruelty is hard to obtain, shelters in Maryland and across the country for years have taken special care of black cats this time of year.3
"Some satanic cults sacrifice all-black or all-white cats as part of their rituals," said Nancy Suro, director of the Maxfund, a pet-adoption agency.
For the past six years, the Maxfund has called an annual October moratorium on any adoptions involving all-black or all-white cats. Even though Suro acknowledged she doesn't know how widespread the problem is, she said: "I know such activity goes on. We absolutely refuse to take any chances with these cats' lives."4
The problem — or the perception of it — follows folkloric patterns, with anecdotal reports becoming ever wider in scope. For example, ritualistic Halloween sacrifices are said to make use of white cats as well as black cats:
Although black cats are at greater risk when it comes to cult sacrifices, white cats — because of their link to purity and virginity — have become a target in recent years.4
The problem is also said to have expanded to endanger cats of any color:
Black cats are taboo. At least that's the rule at area shelters where black felines are locked away until after the holiday. Too often cats were adopted as accessories to costumes and spooky parties, then abandoned. "There are also
so-calledreligious groups that sacrifice animals," said Leslie Eppick of the Glendale SPCA. "If desperate, they will take any cat, no matter what color."5
The activity is said to be no longer restricted to Halloween and to occur on other "satanic holidays" as well:
Nicky Ratliff, executive director of Humane Society of Carroll County [Maryland], does not allow black cats to be adopted before Halloween.
"Not only black cats, but also solid white cats. And not only on Halloween, but on several holidays on the satanic calendar," Ratliff said.3
The catnappings are said to be starting ever earlier in the year:
When Tina Sowers' lovable black cat, Isaiah, disappeared
Oct. 5,she struggled to stay positive.
"But by the next evening it all started to sink in," said Sowers, who shares her home with five other felines, all of varying colors. Isaiah's black, it's nearly Halloween, and he's the only cat that's missing from her home.
"It's an awful thing to think about but there are people who do these things to cats around this time of year," the north Phoenix housewife said. "Me and my neighbors know we have to protect our cats, but it's so early in October."6
Halloween-related animal abductions are said to not only begin as early as August, but to include several breeds of dogs as well:
Lillian Dubois-Tercero, president and executive director of Arizona Pet Line, a non-profit lost-and-found pet service in Phoenix, said that according to her computerized records, Halloween catnapping commences as early as late August.
"Already this year we have reports of
21 missingblack cats, 12 whitecats and 15 dogsfrom the end of August to October 14,"she said, all within an area that runs from 51st Avenueto 32nd Streetand Thomas to Cactus roads. It's also a tally that is right on target with numbers from the past three years.
"The disappearance of symbolized occult animals like black and white cats and Rottweilers, Dobermans and Great Danes starts the same time every year," she said.6
What to make of all these claims? Contemporary news accounts are a bundle of contradictory and conflicting information. Some veterinarians, law enforcement officials, and shelter operators assert that claims of feline sacrifices at Halloween are overblown:
Dr. Leslie Sinclair, a veterinarian who is director of companion animal care for the Humane Society of the United States, said shelters across the country ban adoptions at this time of year
— orat least closely scrutinize adoption applicants.
Although many shelter operators acknowledge having little or no first-hand experience with animal sacrifices on Halloween, they have long traded tales of black cats being decapitated, disemboweled or skinned to mark the holiday. Shelter operators say pet owners should keep their pets indoors at Halloween.
But tales of widespread animal torture on Halloween might be more legend than real, Sinclair said. She said that society officials employed a clipping service to survey news accounts of feline carnage surrounding Halloween 1996 — and found nothing.
Michael F. Ryan — an investigator with the Baltimore state's attorney's office who has advised police departments on the practices of devil worshipers — said no one should fear that black cats are about to be singled out for satanic sacrifice.
"It's no more significant than a white dog, a brown dog or a polka-dotted kangaroo," he said. "The more attention people give to this myth, it just helps to ride along on a wave that takes on a life of its own. It's just not there.3
Some offer accounts that border on the ridiculous to validate their belief in satanic catnappings:
Two years ago, shelter workers at the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition in Williamsburg were on red alert when a woman dressed as a witch came in and insisted on adopting a black cat.
"We told her no," said BARC Vice President Vinny Spinola, whose shelter receives more than a dozen requests for black cats each Halloween and also has issued a moratorium on black-cat adoptions. "We knew she only wanted the cat for a Halloween ritual."
Litke at ASPCA recalled a spooky episode with a woman who had adopted a black cat.
"We called two days later to check on the cat, and she told us the cat was dead."
The woman wouldn't tell the ASPCA how the cat died but said workers could pick up the body.
"When we got there, she was gone
. . .and so was the cat," Litke said. "All we found was an empty apartment. We never found the body."2
Some offer scattered anecdotal accounts of black cat mutilations:
Interviews with shelter managers and a search of regional newspapers turned up nearly a dozen reports of black cat mutilations over the past four Halloweens. Cat bones and body parts were found near a Teterboro, N.J., shelter. In Wausau, Wis., a black cat was shaved and an occult insignia was carved into its side. A black cat was burned alive in Doylestown, Ohio. In Sanford, Fla., authorities found one black cat beheaded and three others with knife wounds.7
Although no law enforcement agency or animal protection group we contacted could provide statistics about Halloween-related animal killings or abuse, the consensus is that although incidents of animal abuse may rise slightly around Halloween, it's a year-around problem, and it has far more to do with poorly-behaved kids than with organized "satanic cults":
Far too often, the animals are tortured and sacrificed during pseudo satanic-based rituals.
"But not by the real religious satanic groups," [Lillian Dubois-Tercero, president and executive director of Arizona Pet Line] stressed. "They don't sacrifice cats and dogs. It's the idiot juveniles (who are) responsible who don't know what they're doing."
Kim Hicks, spokesperson for the Arizona Humane Society, agreed that it's not religious groups such as the Wiccans that are stealing and killing animals.
"Wiccans are actually an anti-cruelty (to animals) group who hold animals in a higher regard than they do humans," she said. "I think it's more like the people who dabble in the occult who are dangerous, and my guess would be it's troubled teenagers."
The problem is magnified at Halloween time, when any unusual or unexplained animal death is automatically attributed to Halloween-related satanic activity:
Hicks cited a series of 12 to 14 cat torture and mutilation cases last fall in the Ahwatukee Foothills, five of which were confirmed by necropsies to have been killed by humans. All were thought to be perpetrated by neighborhood teens.6
Note that the article cited above refers to "12 to 14 cat torture and mutilation cases" but avers that only five of the cats were confirmed to have been killed by "humans." If the other seven to nine cases had not been linked to human activity, then why were they reported as incidents of "torture and mutilation"? The fact is that cats are frequently killed by larger animals such as coyotes and through a variety of accidental means, but both types of deaths (and unexplained disappearances) are often mistakenly chalked up to the work of "satanic cults" and described as cases of "torture and mutilation" when the deaths occur around Halloween.
Some argue that, real phenomenon or not, Halloween cat sacrifices don't merit a radical change in shelters' adoption policies, because that's not where the perpetrators obtain their animals:
''We definitely get a little tighter in our adoption screening, especially the week before Halloween, and we don't allow any black-cat adoptions on Halloween day,'' said Karen Gnaegy, manager of the Animal Rescue and Adoption Society.
But she added: ''Most cults are going to get their cats off their streets. They're not going to come into a shelter and pay $40 and go through a background check.''4
Are the dangers "satanic rites" pose to cats at Halloween time a real, widespread phenomenon, or largely a self-perpetuating Halloween myth? What evidence we could gather was inconclusive. Certainly, though, shelters' being extra-careful with feline adoptions just before Halloween to prevent the "renting" of cats for decorative purposes is a prudent precaution. If Halloween policies also help dissuade those who might inflict harm on adopted pets, so much the better.