A recent episode of Animal Voices covered a topic new to me, Black Dog Syndrome (BDS). BDS is defined as “the low adoption and high euthanasia rate of black dogs in shelters.” Two activists working on behalf of black dogs in shelters, Tamara Delaney of Contrary to Ordinary: The Black Pearls of the Dog World and Heather Rosenwald of Start Seeing Black Dogs, were featured on the show.
It’s so crazy to me that black dogs get intentionally or subconsciously ignored and abandoned. Here are some of the reasons why:
- The color black is often vilified and associated with evil or bad luck in the US.
- In the media, black dogs are often associated with aggression and menace.
- Facial features of black dogs don’t show up as well on pet adoption websites.
- Black dogs “get lost” in shelters, too–they don’t stand out as much as lighter colored dogs
- Black cats also get a bad rap since they are particularly associated with bad luck and superstition.
Of course, all of these theories are inextricably linked with how people of color are so often viewed–menacing, strange, foreign, bad, unattractive. The show’s host, Lauren Corman, did ask both guests to touch on how ideas of race and racism have made black dogs invisible or undesirable. While they did not personally see this playing out in the communities they worked in, they did agree that this was an issue raised by others in the BDS community.
During the episode, Corman also breifly shared a story about a shelter who was criticized by the NAACP for using the phrase, “Black is Beautiful,” during a campaign that coincided with the holiday, Juneteenth, which celebrates the abolition of black slaves in Texas. My reaction to the comments on the news article I linked to could be a separate post in and of itself. Most of them tell the NAACP to just chill and stop harassing the innocent animals. I’m inclined to take a similar, though more muted, position. Now that I know what BDS is, I am all about getting the word out on behalf of these animals and when I am ready to care for another dog, I will go out of my way to adopt a black one. The response to and from the NAACP, however, is again a case where activists in the animal welfare/rights movements and in other social justice movements are seen as diametrically opposed. I have not seen the NAACP’s original statement to the shelter so I can only assume that the organization thought that using such a powerful phrase as “Black is Beautiful,” was disrespectful and that even subtly comparing the plight of black dogs with the plight of black Americans trivializes that human struggle. Since black American slaves were legally considered property in much the same way animals are, this bristling is even more understandable. This is a shortsighted view, however, that ignores how the same systems of oppression that create and sustain racism are the same ones that enable animal use and ownership by humans. The comments to the NAACP to “just get over it,” is an example of how issues of race are often so easily dismissed by those who are not on the receiving end of racism.
In an appropriate side note, Philadelphia’s homeless animals (mostly cats and dogs) are facing a crisis. Due to budget constraints, the city is looking for an outside contractor to take over the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Agency (PACCA), which would probably change the focus from trying to get the animals adopted to just killing them. Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia (http://www.phillynokill.com)* is lobbying City Hall to save PACCA. The Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) was formed in 2004 as the adoption arm of PAWS. Prior to the formation of PAWS, 9 out of 10 animals were killed by the city. In the first quarter of 2008, their save rate went up to 70%. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, or are just interested in helping homeless cats and dogs, I encourage you to check out the work of these organizations.
* Typed out the link because when it was embedded, it went to a funky, virus-looking site. Don’t know what happened in the translation but the site is legit so I typed it out.
I remember learning about this last year when we were adopting our cats (I spent a lot of time at work hanging out on the Craigslist pet forums, where people mentioned it). I felt v. glad that my brothers & I all ended up coincidentally w/black cats!
I can understand why some might get offended by the “black is beautiful” phrasing — I mean, there are groups like PETA doing racially-dodgy campaigns all the time — but I like your analysis, that it shows “how the same systems of oppression that create and sustain racism are the same ones that enable animal use and ownership by humans.” I can see how BDS would be fed by racism, y’know?
Sorry, not v. coherent, but thanks for this post.
I just finished listening to the show when I saw this post!
I thought it was interesting how the two women who were interviewed did not see much (if any) connection between BDS and racism. They mentioned that geography was one variable in the extent of BDS in a shelter, which makes me wonder whether one would find a correlation between higher rates black dogs in shelters and negative feelings toward people of color. Do we have any sociologist readers who’d be interested in checking this out?
Another noteworthy point made on the show was that there are many groups who rescue specific breeds from shelters. Those who distinctly fall between breeds as “mixed” or “mutts” have no major support group. They are cast into an “other” category, one which defies simple categories for one to identify with (as a totem companion animal of sorts). Could it be that these “mutts” are also discriminated against because they are neither pure-breeds nor are they intended hybrids (i.e. cockerpoodle)? Does this also relate back to racial genealogy?
Thanks for calling attention to this problem. I have a black cat myself (although I adopted him directly off the street and not through a shelter, so I can’t take credit for choosing him). Black cats especially (but also cats in general) also need to be careful around Halloween because people will kill them as pranks or blood rituals. (One reason mine doesn’t go outside by himself.)
Adam: I completely agree that mutts are discriminated against. Aside from not having the support of breed rescue groups, a lot of people think they just aren’t as good as purebreds. Larger dogs are also hard to adopt out. And older dogs, although they may be already trained and easier to care for than puppies. And of course, breeds with bad reputations and dogs who resemble those breeds. When I am able to get a dog, I will go to the shelter with an image of a large-ish adult mutt (although the most important attributes will be a low-to-medium energy dog who is good with cats).
I have never heard of this but feel sad reading it. My best friend of 14 years was a 100+ pound mixed breed who showed up on my doorstep and refused to leave. Anyone who ever met him agreed he was the world’s smartest dog. Everyone wanted a dog like Reebok. I lost him to liver cancer a year ago and feel sad knowing his color and lack of pedigree causes some to look down on him. Luckily his loving heart and sweet nature would never have recognized such a slight.
I just found your blog and am thoroughly enjoying it.
I’m so sorry about Reebok. I just lost my dog, Luckie, three weeks ago. He was 14 years old. I still expect to see his head pop up in the window when I get home and miss not giving him food from my plate. It’s so hard and I’ll always love and miss him.
I went and gave my black cat, Oro (his eyes are golden) a massive cuddle after listening to that episode. We adopted him from a shelter, and he is the friendliest cat who lives here!
I had never heard of this phenomenon until now, and find it very sad. I wonder if it applies to other countries – I know a LOT of people in Australia who prefer black cats over other cats, and will intentionally go out and adopt them. The general consensus is that they are friendlier, hardier, and cope better with our strong sunlight, as the lighter cats (much like the lighter people) tend to get taken out by skin cancer.
Interesting stuff. I have a black dog that is also part pit bull. Molly, the sweetest dog ever, has really gotten a bad rap for looks and breed. I have a black cat too, but no one is afraid of him. They are both rescues and I am privileged to be their caretaker.
I am so sorry and sad to learn that Black dogs and cats are not adopted! I was not aware that there was a problem of this nature happening. I can think of no logical reason for such a thing. I pray that it stops, and that all animals are judged by there actions and temperment.
The other day I spoke with a neighbor who emigrated over from S.Africa several years ago. I asked her if she ever heard of black dog syndrome before, and she said she was somewhat aware of it. She then mentioned that in S. Africa, black dogs are popular because “the Africans” are afraid of them because they are difficult to see at night.
This perked my interest on two levels. The first is that the value/privilege black dogs possess is based upon their utility (i.e. cuteness and innocence in the US and dangerousness in SA). The second was that she (as a white African) may have been referring to black Africans when she said “Africans” (although I may be reading into this too much). This would suggest that black dogs are sometimes used as instruments to protect white privilege. Any thoughts?
What’s happening to black dogs is a side effect of the consciousness which STILL has an effect in the lives of black people. Dehumanization still plays a role in the in mainstream consciousness, that is why this is happening to black dogs. I would think this alone would alert everyone to the fact that it’s still happening to black people as well, and motivate them to contribute to that. I would think the shelter owners would say to themselves, “this would be a perfect opportunity to DISCONTINUE that practice and let the mantras which have historically referred to black people, still refer to people, not dogs.”
Using a black people mantra, and making it a black dog mantra CONTRIBUTES to the consciousness which has put these dogs in jeopardy. If their human caretakers don’t extend themselves enough to express concern for those they can immediately help, simply by picking a new mantra (Btw, how freakin hard is that?…) then, how can they expect any compassion to be shown back to them and their efforts? Out of respect, once someone informed me of the pain attached toward the dehumanization of a relevant cultural term- I would simply create my own term. This is something I would do for Native Americans, Jews, Hispanics, Gays, Irish, anyone who needed it..and, I would hope the same could be done for African people. These arguments which relate animals to the plight of blacks, are backwards from the beginning. If you want to understand why “spiritually” it just can not work, just try to understand karma. If you want to understand how “logically” it cannot work, just understand, that sympathy for blacks can not even stop “compassionate” people from further agitating their pain by continuing to use it in ways which hurt them.
The phrase is still in use for humans, black humans. International runways, Italian vogue, and the Documentary “A Girl Like Me” made this quite clear. So, at a time where that phrase is still used to uplift those who need it, and is still being used to identify those people specifically, the last thing one of us needs is for another association to be built i.e. “black dogs”=black is beautiful. This shelter slogan is a great example of how to get that meter going and going strong. If the shelter operators take a moment to learn, and then take another moment to extend a little bit of consideration..they may end up attracting the positive results they desire.
Like many mainstream vegan efforts, the way they are going about it ensures that it will not work. When you are honest, non-manipulative, and, you evidence the compassion you are asking for- people (many of the same people who were once avoiding you and your words) will, now, be interested in what you have to say.
The subconscious reactions of people to black dogs come from the same place that also holds what I call the karmic-bs meter. We all have this bs meter in our heads. It explains why when we think we believe in something, we either cannot follow through or are attracted to options which screw it up entirely. Something is just off. With a receptive attitude, these shelter owners could have made friends with NAACP members, and who knows what “positivity” could have cone from that..thousands of new homes for dogs, publicity which highlighted the plights of both species..who knows.. It could have been a blessing in waiting if they had risen to the occasion. There are things in life that are exactly that.. just opportunities that come by being a better and kinder person than you were a few moments ago. I think we’re all pretty capable of being conscious enough to listen when someone says we’re digging at their wounds.
A little more on that karmic bs meter. It’s great to care about dogs, it’s great to be conscious of at least one of the things that’s making our lives difficult on this earth (i. e. we are all connected). The thing about caring for one type of being, is that it’s an entryway to caring for others. Why do people try to evoke sympathy for animals by comparing them with blacks?
Because if you’ve started to care for or, at least have a standard, for one type of being, you can use that to tap into caring for another type of being. What those animal protectors above don’t realize is that their efforts are magnified by what they are. If they become what they are asking for, they are in a better position to attract what they are asking for. Like attracts like.
So, if I tell you that “such and such” is hurtful, how about doing what you are asking of others? Be who you say you are. Partner with those who have come in contact with you because your FIRST STAGE of compassion. Partner with those who may be your entrance to another stage of growth and eventually success. Enter the second stage.
I grew up in the Cal area. Everyone knows that the only type of women is a blonde white woman. As a kid, I wasn’t any further behind in this realization. So, when trying to find where I fit in on the mainstream of things, I searched the term black beauty. I found a title “black beauty.” And, I went all the way to the library, excited as could be, trying to find a book about “black beauty.” I picked up the book, looked at the front cover..and, realized that in my world the only type of black beauty was a damn horse. Can you imagine what that felt like?
So, when the NAACP contacts someone, remember they are a group of people who have intimate contact with that kind of feeling, and have probably seen that “A Girl Like Me” documentary a thousand times over..When they come to you..they are coming to give you some information you did not have before.
I can imagine what it’s like for “black is beautiful” to illicit imagery of a dog, just like that “black beauty” now refers to a horse. Maybe, you can now too. But, what I’m sure you haven’t imagined is that when you take someone else’s culture and extricate it so that it applies to animals, you are making that hole of devastation even larger. But what can you do when you don’t know? Absolutely nothing.
So, it’s a great thing to care for black dogs, especially because it’s also a chance for you to “know.” So, here’s the chance to “know.” And, if I tell you what this is, and simply ask for your sympathy..and, you turn away after having paved your way toward undestanding-you passed up that second stage. In that case, you have absolutely no right to comment on people who haven’t entered their first.
The Universe, God, Budda Allah- every God-like power understands that because they all speak to connectivity and empathy. This was just another avenue for empathy. You can’t ask from others when you won’t give. Nobody ever became a vegan because of what happened to black people, and nobody is ever going to buy a dog because blondes are hot stuff. It isn’t even needed. So, why argue? Just partner, and evidence the compassion. That’s what power is, it taps into our connection. We are power when connected and open to one another. We are powerless when segmented. So, take the information when it comes to you, and be grateful for the chance to understand a little more about who you need to be before you become effective.
What a great article. Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue. I have a real weakness for black dogs, especially labs. I just do not see why people don’t prefer them!
Black dog lovers will enjoy a new book by Pamela Black Townsend, called (ironically) “Black is Beautiful: A Celebration of Dark Dogs,” available through http://www.pgspca.org
(all proceeds benefit the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George’s County, Inc.)
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As a black vegan myself, I have very mixed feelings about your take on all of this. Mostly I’m angry with the NAACP. The NAACP doesn’t own the word “black” so they should just get a clue. They don’t even use the word Black (or African!) in their name, instead sticking to “Colored” which has it’s origin in a eurocentric worldview. The NAACP is once again making racial politics the issue when the goal should be to +eliminate+ all racial politics. We need to stop seeing ourselves as colors or as ethnicities from various continents. This kind of griping from the NAACP is counterproductiove, makes us look stupid and petty, and trivializes actual incidents of real racism.
Furthermore, black is a color, not a race. They may as well complain about “Black Friday Sales”.
The only people who would object to “black is beautiful” as a slogan to help BDS victims, are speciesists. I conclude this because they apparently find it demeaning to ever in any way admit to sharing anything in common with a “mere animal”.
I have no sympathies with or for any group that claims to oppose racism while obviously being raging speciesists.
I also think it’s absurd to link BDS to racism. BDS exists due to superstition and a biological aversion to things that conceal detail. Black absorbs light, making it harder to gauge a dog’s facial expressions, or notice a predator skulking around. The color can also make it harder to distinguish between friend or foe without good lighting. BDS has as it’s root in our own evolutionary adaptation… an aversion to animals that are hard to see in the dark.
[…] fairly anti-social most times.) There is another reason you should adopt a black cat and dog, too: Black Dog Syndrome. (I feel weird quoting passages where she relies on animal studies that were most likely done in […]