Puppy prejudice: Are black animals less likely to be adopted?

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New research is challenging "black dog syndrome," the idea that black dogs and animals are less likely to be adopted because they don't photograph well and appear to be more aggressive than animals with other coat colors.Today

It’s a common story animal welfare workers will share: Black pets are often the last left on the shelter floor and the first to be euthanized. The idea is so pervasive there’s even a name for it — black dog syndrome.

“It’s not news to people who have been in animal welfare for a while that black cats and dogs are a little harder to place,” Brenda Barnette of Los Angeles Animal Services told TODAY.com. “I think it’s for the very simple reason that they’re harder to photograph.”

Nonprofits have been founded specifically to find homes for black animals, and several shelters across the country have made special efforts to promote the adoption of black animals, from providing them with better lighting to running special promotions. But despite much media attention and anecdotal evidence from shelter staff, recent research suggests that coat color, be it black, white or brown, has little impact on an adopter’s decision.

“New pieces of research have found that there is no indication that they are less likely to be adopted,” ASPCA Vice President of Shelter Research Dr. Emily Weiss told TODAY.com. “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.”

Until recently, there was little hard data to either support or refute all the anecdotal evidence that black animals languish longer in shelters. But two studies from the ASPCA, one looking at people’s reasons for adoption and another at animals’ length of stay on the shelter floor, found that adopters are not biased against certain coat colors and that black animals do not in general remain in shelters longer.

Carolyn Fitzgerald, director of Animal Care and Control of Philadelphia, says that she has not noticed an overabundance of black animals, but the shelter still holds special promotions.Today

Animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell also conducted a study on the subject with two of her students. Looking at adoption records from the Dane County Humane Society in Madison, Wisc., over a period of four years, they found that though large dogs were less likely to be adopted than smaller ones, the amount of black in their coats had no apparent impact.

Another study conducted at Indiana University Southeast found that, with the exception of golden retrievers, people actually conceive of black labs as being “less dominant and less hostile.” Black labs, after all, are one of the most popular breeds in America.

So why then does the “myth” persist despite all the new research? Dr. Weiss believes it could be because there are simply more black dogs in the general animal population, and shelter workers are used to seeing more black dogs around.

“They might see that black dogs are staying around longer, but that might just be because there are more black dogs in the shelter,” she said. “I think some beliefs are hard to change, especially if someone has anecdotal evidence that there have been one or two big black dogs that take longer to adopt.”

And while studies suggest that adopters do not perceive black cats and dogs as more threatening or hostile, it is true that people will often choose an animal that stands out from the rest. For that reason, Barnette of L.A. Animal Services makes sure not to clump similar-looking animals together.

“If a shelter has 10 black dogs and one white dog as compared to one black dog and 10 white ones, the length of stay will probably be different for the black dog in each case,” Marion Zuefle, who was part of a recent study on the subject, told TODAY.com. “The adopter might be more drawn to the unique dog whether that is the one white dog out of 10 black ones or the one black dog out of 10 white ones.”

But despite the data, some animal welfare workers still insist that people harbor a bias against black animals, whether that prejudice is because of poor lighting or cultural associations such as the belief that black cats are a source of bad luck.

Four-year-old Sydney is up for adoption at the ASPCA. "She's social, but takes some time to learn to trust new people. She would do best in a home with respectful children over the age of 10."Today

“We continue to notice that black animals are euthanized first as shelter workers know the ‘turnover’ for black animals or their likelihood of being adopted is lower than animals with other colors or markings,” said Erin Lamparter, cofounder of Lulu’s Locker Rescue, a nonprofit that finds black animals and FIV cats homes.

Whether it’s myth or truth, many researchers and animal advocates alike agree that finding homes for animals of any color or stripe is a worthwhile pursuit. But not everyone feels the same way. Amanda Leonard studied the adoption of black animals in graduate school after working for the Humane Society in Washington, D.C., where she noticed black animals stuck around longer. After being quoted in a newspaper on the subject, she said that she received her “fair share of ‘hate mail.’”

“When the angry emails are from individuals who are not in any way involved in animal welfare, I have to ask, ‘Why do they care?’" she wrote in an email. “In the end, it does not matter if BDS is real or not, there are still animals who need homes.”