This post is part of a series running throughout Adopt-a-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week (September 19-25) to help promote understanding of the underdogs (and undercats) of the adoption world and find homes for harder-to-place pets.

In 2010, most (but not all) Americans have come to realize that it’s just plain wrong to judge someone based on the color of his or her skin. Yet for some reason, many people still judge animals based on the color of their fur.

Call it “Black Pet Syndrome.” It effects countless dogs and cats languishing in shelters, waiting for adoption. “There’s not a lot of that type of statistics on many aspects of sheltering,” Kim Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States, told MSNBC. “But I think that every person that has worked in a shelter can attest that in shelters, animals with black coats can be somewhat harder to adopt out — or to even get noticed.”

The reasons black animals end up neglected and left behind are often irrational. Consider, for instance, black cats. Ever since the Dark Ages, people have associated them with deviltry and witchcraft, hence the popularity of black cat motifs at Halloween. While I can’t imagine many people still truly believe black cats are in league with Satan, this latent prejudice continues today. A study in California found that black cats were about half as likely to be adopted as tabby cats and two-thirds less likely than white cats. Kathleen Fram, of Summit Animal Rescue Association, where black cats make up about 40 percent of the 500 cats adopted out every year, says, “People just pass them by.”

The bias against black dogs doesn’t make much sense, either. “It’s that old thing of light is good and dark is evil,” said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles. “The light-versus-dark thing is so ingrained in our consciousness in books and movies. It transfers subliminally in picking out a dog.” Black dogs are often portrayed in movies and television as dangerous animals in the service of villains such as drug dealers, which is sort of the modern equivalent of black cats portrayed in the service of witches.

Black dogs and cats face other problems, too. For one, shelters frequently post pictures of adoptable pets on their Web sites, and black animals often don’t photograph as well. Also, some believe black dogs and cats look older and less like puppies and kittens compared to their fairer cousins. And, as Madeline Bernstein observed, black animals get lost in the shadows of dimly lit shelters: “They almost become invisible.”

What can we do about Black Pet Syndrome? For one, those of us who live with a black dog or cat shouldn’t be shy about bragging on them. I, for one, couldn’t imagine life without my jet-black Siamese mix I adopted from the Hawaiian Humane Society. Those with black dogs should let people know they can be just as gentle and loving as any other color dog.

People can also choose to support organizations specifically set up to help these often neglected animals. Two examples are Black Cat Rescue and the Black Dog Rescue Project.

And, of course, people looking to adopt shouldn’t let any sort of weird color biases sway their judgement. Dogs and cats shouldn’t be judged based on the color of their fur, no more than people should be judged on the color of their skin.

Check out animals like Scarlett*, a sweet and well-mannered short-haired black cat, and Savannah*, an energetic older black chow mix, who are both at the Nevada Humane Society, waiting for their new homes.

Photo credit: Nevada Humane Society, Michele Ting

*Change.org is not involved with the adoption process for any of the featured animals. Each rescue group or shelter will have their own application and selection process, which may include policies against adopting out-of-state. No matter where you’re located, there are special pets in your community who need homes, too.

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