Do Black Dogs Face Discrimination?

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Nell Redmond / AP

An abandoned puppy waits for adoption.

It was a case of good intentions going astray. The Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter in the suburbs north of Austin was facing a problem voiced by shelters across the country — an abundance of black cats and dogs. And so management decided to run a special promotion offering lower adoption fees during "Black Is Beautiful" week. Unfortunately, the promo campaign was scheduled for the same week Texans were set to celebrate Juneteenth, heralding the anniversary of the arrival in 1867 of the delayed news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery. Local civil rights leaders were critical and chagrined shelter officials admitted their timing was bad. The promotion was scrapped.

But the question remains for shelter operators across the country: Why does it appear that black dogs, particularly the large ones, and black cats are unadoptable? The phenomenon has been dubbed "black dog syndrome." Is it superstition? Black cats are considered unlucky by some. Is it mythology? Big black dogs have been portrayed as symbols of death in literature and legend, cast as bad guys in movies like The Omen, and even featured in modern stories like the dog Grim in the Harry Potter tales.

Some of the reasons may be more pragmatic. Black dogs have to be specially lighted for photography and therefore don't show up well on shelter websites, and in pamphlets and flyers. Visitors have trouble noticing them too in poorly lit kennels. "In a lot of shelter environments the lighting is not that great to begin with," says Pam Black Townsend, a shelter volunteer at the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George's County in Maryland, whose photo book of black dogs raises money for the shelter "They are hard to photograph and some people say, with black dogs, their eyes don't stand out as much and so they are harder to read. That makes people a little bit cautious." Townsend's advice — shoot them outside and in indirect light, and if that fails, Photoshop the pictures to bring out the details.

"At our shelter, Utopia Ranch, we have a lot of large, black, indiscriminate-looking dogs," says Kinky Friedman, the Texas musician, author and onetime gubernatorial candidate. In the eight years since his South Texas rescue ranch has been operating, a majority of the dogs left at the gate or rescued from town shelters are black, Friedman says, and a look at the ranch website confirms that view. There are two unwanted black mutts that have been given the supermodel names Christy Brinkley and Bridgett Bardot by Friedman's cousin Nancy Parker-Simons, who with her husband runs the rescue operation. And there is Harley, a medium-sized black mutt whose mutilated ear from a shotgun blast tells a typically sad tale.

Friedman, who favors black cowboys hats and western wear, is partial to black dogs. "The Friedman [dogs] are all mutts, poi dogs as they call them in Hawaii," Kinky says of his own five dogs — Mr. Magoo, Perky, Chumley, Fly and Brownie (the lone brown dog in the bunch). "The only thing wrong with having four black dogs and one brown dog is when I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I stumble over them," Friedman says.

One theory is that there are more unadopted black dogs because there are simply more of them than canines of other shades. "I have heard that black is the dominant gene and in general that's why there are so many of them," says singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris. Active in the animal rescue movement, Harris adopted a big black dog, Bonaparte, years ago. "He was a goofy, poodle-looking dog," she says. "He looked like something Dr. Seuss would have designed." Bonaparte was her "road dog," traveling with her on tour and when he died she went into deep grief. In his honor, she built Bonaparte's Retreat, a rescue and foster operation in her backyard, designed with input from Friedman, and she embarked on a campaign to support pet adoption.

She now travels with two "road dogs" — Keeta, a yellow mix dog saved from a 2005 hurricane in Mississippi, and Bella, a black dog with a sugar-dipped muzzle, the white and gray wisps of hair that often give black dogs an aging appearance. "Bella is Keeta's dog," Harris says, a "soulful" black dog of unknown age who came from an urban Nashville shelter just days before she was scheduled to be euthanized.

Some experts dispute the severity of "black dog syndrome." Kimberley Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States, cites one study by Pethealth Inc., a pet insurance and animal microchip company, that went through numbers from 679 shelters and found black dogs indeed had longer stays before being adopted — but just by two days on average. "The idea that black dogs are not being adopted is not as gloomy as it is being portrayed," Intino says. But the anecdotal evidence seems hard to dispute. When it announced its unfortunate promotion, over half the dogs and cats at the Williamson County shelter were black. Those who do not find homes will be euthanized.