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Fear factor a black mark against darkest of cats

Rescue aims to offer shelter, shed misperceptions

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Cinder was a stray who languished in a shelter before going to a foster home, where she is now waiting to be adopted.

Cinder is a jet-black stray with a skittish personality and green eyes that glow like flashlights.

A cat lover found her wandering the streets of Worcester one day and gave her refuge in a shelter, where Cinder languished because of the color of her fur: Black.

Dark and mysterious with piercing eyes, black cats have long been considered underdogs in the competitive pet adoption market.

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“Black cats have much lower adoption rates than cats of any color,’’ said Jennifer Stott, who started a no-kill rescue in Massachusetts in an effort to save black cats. “In a shelter system, that leaves the cats open to a higher rate of euthanasia. And our goal is to keep black cats out of the shelters.’’

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The cats are more difficult to place for adoption, some shelter owners say, because they tend to fade into the shadows while more colorful animals stand out, and because their black coats and bright eyes make poor pictures that get passed over by adopters looking online. And then there are the ancient stigmas of bad luck and witchcraft.

“We’ve got superstition working against us,’’ said Stott, of Malden. “For 2011, it’s interesting how much that is still holding black cats back.’’

Three years ago Stott established Black Cat Rescue, a loose network of homes across the state where felines are dropped off for temporary food, shelter, and safety from the streets. The animals are later placed in adoptive homes.

Jillian Quigley, the foster care and adoption coordinator, visits homes and shelters across the state at all hours of the day to pick up abandoned black cats and take them to foster housing.

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“These shelters have these black cats that have a lot of potential, but they don’t feel like they are getting the face time and the attention they need. And that is why people come to us,’’ said Quigley, of Watertown who is on call round the clock.

Since the rescue was established, 115 cats, including some mixed with white, have found foster or adoptive homes in Boston, Haverhill, Hingham, Somerville, Wellesley, and Cambridge.

It is a small operation, with just a few people participating at a time, and the rescue generally gets more calls for help than homes to place the cats. In the meantime, the group has been spreading the word in an effort to change sinister stereotypes about the felines by using Craigslist, e-mail, a blog, and Facebook, where the rescue has more than 4,000 friends.

Celebrated in some cultures and reviled in others, black cats are a fixture in Western lore. Linked to witches, black felines have had a starring role at Halloween, in American literature, and in pop music. In American folklore, it is a bad omen if a black cat crosses your path, and black cats can transform into humans to become spies for evil witches.

Pop star Janet Jackson immortalized the animals in her hit song “Black Cat’’ when she crooned: “Nine lives/ short days/ long nights/ living on the edge/ not afraid to die.’’

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On television, “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch’’ relied on a talking black cat sidekick named Salem for guidance.

‘I know people who think black cats are creepy. They just dislike them.’

Dan McAnespie Hudson High’s football coach (above)

“I know people who think black cats are creepy,’’ said Daisy Spear, 24, a research technician from Somerville who has been fostering Cinder for the past three months. “They just dislike them.’’

Still, black cats are exalted in some parts of the world, like Scotland, where they’re said to bring prosperity, and Japan, where they are believed to bring good luck.

Pet advocates nationwide have been waging campaigns to boost the cats’ image. An animal refuge in Florida kicked off a “Black (CAT) Friday’’ adoption special recently, and the national rescue organization Best Friends Animals Society launched a “Back in Black’’ event based on the idea that black is fashionable.

“Black animals do have a harder time finding homes,’’ said Barbara Williamson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Some shelters, like the Animal Rescue League, say they have no trouble getting black cats adopted but that they take special measures, like bringing them into brighter settings so they’re more visible.

Stott started Black Cat Rescue after befriending a stray named Sophia and eventually finding the cat a home. Her efforts since then have included a stab at tweaking the less-than-cuddly image of black cats by changing names like Shadow, Midnight, and Onyx to friendlier sounding names. She has enlisted help from volunteer photographers to capture better images of the felines. And she has been seeking help online. The rescue group’s Facebook page includes pictures of cats cuddling, posing, or looking dreamy eyed into the camera.

“It’s like dating,’’ Stott said, while her 8-year-old adopted black cat, Isobel, scampered in her apartment. “It’s our job to get their faces out there and tell their story.’’

Those who turn to Black Cat Rescue for pets tend to be animal lovers who, in many cases, had black cats at some point in their lives.

“My best friend was a cat,’’ said Spear, of her childhood pet, Oreo. “I love cats in general, but I especially like black cats.’’

Growing up in Vermont, she used to pull Oreo’s tail, dunk him in the pool, and dress him in doll’s clothing. Oreo loved her anyway.

In Hingham, Jennifer Kilduff said her newly adopted 5-month-old black kittens are getting used to the rest of her family, which includes two older cats.

They are trying to get along, but Munchkin, a 6-year-old feline who happens to be black, has been hissing and instigating fights with the newcomers.

The kittens, though, are making themselves at home. Spider often crawls on the shoulders of Kilduff’s husband and wraps around his neck like a scarf.

Both kittens love having their bellies rubbed.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.