(The Root) — As a fan of animals and a nonfan of discrimination, I was compelled to write years ago about a topic I had begun hearing about from fellow animal lovers and shelter volunteers: doggie discrimination.
Before anyone laughs, the topic is very serious — in fact, deadly serious. According to anecdotal evidence compiled nationally, black pets are less likely to be adopted. Some shelters report that the bias affects larger black dogs, while others report that the problem isn't size- or animal-specific but is simply about color.
Although it's referred to as "black-dog syndrome," the pattern of darker-coated animals being the last adopted and most likely to be euthanized is not limited to dogs; it afflicts cats, too. This phenomenon is considered so common that some shelters actually decorate black animals in scarves and other accessories to make them more appealing to potential adoptive families.
According to a new report from the ASPCA, however, reports of black-dog (and -cat) syndrome are overblown. The website for the Today show quoted ASPCA Vice President Emily Weiss as saying, "New pieces of research have found that there is no indication that [black dogs] are less likely to be adopted." She added, "We just conducted a piece of research looking at various traits that drive people to adopt, and color did not play a role at all. It busts this myth completely." Weiss goes on to surmise where the "myth" of black animals not being adopted may have come from: "They might see that black dogs are staying around longer, but that might just be because there are more black dogs in the shelter."
Weiss' analysis actually raises more questions than it answers. For one, it has been hypothesized that people rarely acknowledge bias in studies and polls, sometimes because they are unaware, and other times out of embarrassment. "The Bradley effect" is the most oft-cited example of this in polling methodology. California gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley was leading, according to exit polls, only to lose the 1982 race to a white candidate.
A similar discrepancy occurred in polling data conducted during Douglas Wilder's historic campaign to become governor of Virginia. Wilder won the 1989 race but just barely, and not by the margin predicted by polls. It was speculated that in both instances a certain segment of white voters felt uncomfortable admitting their unwillingness to vote for the black candidate for fear of seeming biased, so instead they lied.
While I am not suggesting that all of the ASPCA's polling respondents intentionally lied about their feelings about black pets, it's possible that some may have. It is even more possible that there are negative traits they associate with black pets, in the same way some do with black people, that are subconscious but ingrained. As a result, some of those polls may not even be aware that they're more likely to gravitate toward pets of colors other than black.
Furthermore, Weiss' curious remarks seem fundamentally rooted in flawed logic. The fact that she is willing to acknowledge that black dogs outnumber other dogs in shelters seems to reinforce the very point she is attempting to disprove. After all, are wanted dogs more likely to populate shelters than unwanted dogs?
I'm not the only skeptic of Weiss' newly cheery outlook on this subject. Gwen Cooper is the best-selling author of Homer's Odyssey, a memoir of life with her black cat Homer. Through the success of the book, Homer, who was also blind, emerged as an international poster cat for felines that have a tough time getting adopted.
Cooper said that she learned from her book tours, as well as the advocacy work that she did with hundreds of shelters after the book's publication, that "black cats do not make it out of shelters. They just don't." She added that in addition to Homer, who recently passed away, she has adopted two more black cats for this very reason. She has also been told by shelter volunteers and animal activists that her book has saved countless black cats by popularizing their adoption. " 'Thank God you're putting the word out there that black cats are adoptable, because nobody wants to adopt them,' " she said she's been told.
She explained that she has heard all sorts of theories from the animal-advocacy community, including that black cats play into people's superstitions, while black dogs, especially larger ones, are perceived as scary. She added, "I also think people just don't notice the black cats. They are not as noticeable, and people assume cats in other colors are prettier. I don't. I have two black cats. I think some people feel that way about dogs, that aesthetically [black dogs] are just not as pretty."
When asked about Weiss' theory that the perceived lower adoption rates among black dogs might simply be due to darker dogs being overrepresented in shelters, Cooper replied, "If the shelter population was in any way reflective of the general population, then every animal-owning household in this country would have at least one black cat and at least one pit bull." Cooper explained that in her national tour of animal shelters, pit bulls are among the most common dogs there.
It is certainly possible that some of us are reading too much into the ASPCA's conclusions. But from my vantage point, it is always unsettling when people seem a bit too eager to say that bias in any form isn't really a problem, so we should all just stop wasting our time worrying about it. I also find it unsettling when those who are suspected of practicing a form of bias are left to simply voluntarily acknowledge it, without being directly confronted about it.
Don't get me wrong. There are certainly worse problems in the world than doggie discrimination; I understand that. But that's not really what this story is about. It is yet another reminder that as long as black is associated with bad, dangerous, scary or ugly, the world will be tougher for anyone or anything that is black.
Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.