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Why Are Black Cats Considered Bad Luck?

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Feline friends and fans know there is nothing to fear from the world’s most cuddly creatures (sorry, red pandas, corgi puppies, and fluffy bunnies, this is a cat’s world), but the persistence of the pesky belief that black cats are somehow bad luck has endured for centuries. Sure, back during the heyday of Egyptian rule (around 3000 BC), all cats were notoriously honored and worshipped—killing one was even a capital crime—but the rise of good, old-fashioned witchcraft in Europe put the kibosh on any trace of goodwill towards the inkiest of felines, and the all-black brethren are still trying to distance themselves from the bad press of a witchcraft affiliation.

Black cats pop up frighteningly frequently in all sorts of culturally based bits of folklore, and though much of their mythos is actually of the positive variety, Western tradition has so maligned the critters that black cats as bad luck have become something of a given in various circles (at least, that’s what it looks like once Halloween decorations start popping up, “scaredy cats” and all).

The Middle Ages

It seems that the association between bad luck and black cats dates all the way back to the middle of the fourteenth century. It’s not known exactly how and why cats became associated with the Devil in the Middle Ages, but the belief was so persistent that they were all but exterminated during the Black Death pandemic around 1348 CE. (Pause to cry.) Ironically, killing off the cats only worsened the plague, which was often spread via rodents, which all those dearly departed cats could have helped kill. Oopsie! 

Scottish Folklore

Scottish folklore includes a fairy known as the Cat Sith, a giant black cat (with a small white spot on his chest) who was believed to have the ability to steal a dead person’s soul before the gods could claim it. That belief led to the creation of night-and-day watches called the “Late Wake” to guard bodies just before burial. The Scottish also employed such tried and true methods as “using catnip” and “jumping around a lot” to scare off potential Cat Sith soul-stealers. (Some things never change, even when you’re dealing with possibly fairy-infused felines.)

The Age of Witchcraft

Blame black magic. As chatter about nefarious witchcraft began to spread around Europe in the sixteenth century, cats (particularly black ones) found themselves tangled up in the hunt, simply because many presumed witches had taken in alley cats as companions. Somehow, the concept of “companion” turned into “familiar,” and the belief that witches could turn themselves into their (typically black) cat companions became a persistent one, even carrying over to America, where it was an indelible part of the Salem Witch Trials.

It didn’t help matters that the Puritan pilgrims who helped populate Salem, Massachusetts were devout Bible believers, and the combination of a major fear of anything Devil-related (dating back to the Middle Ages) and the lingering belief that black cats were a classic part of witch lifestyles was a lethal one. 

Feline Movement

There’s also plenty of folklore and legend associated with the actual movements of black cats. In many of the European countries where the felines are still seen as bad luck, it’s an extra bad omen when a black cat actually crosses your path.

However, the Germans seem to have lightened up this piece of legend, believing that a cat that crosses from right to left is bad news, while one that moves left to right signals good things ahead. Good luck trying to get a cat to move the way you want them to; as any cat owner knows you’ll already need good fortune, skill, and a whole of patience to get any kind of cat (black or not) to follow direction as related to paw placement (maybe just let them walk the way they want to, and simply reposition yourself—again, it’s a cat world).

Superstitious gamblers also adhere to the cross-path bad news brigade—if a black cat crosses a gambler’s path while they are heading out to gamble, they are meant to turn back.

Even some pirates subscribed to movement-based beliefs, holding fast to the idea that if a black cat moves towards you, that’s bad luck, but a cat moving away from you means good news. Particularly piratey? If a black cat walked onto a ship and then walked off, the ship would sink on its next outing (keep your ship’s cats close, people). 

Scientifically Speaking

While black pigmentation isn’t limited to specific breeds (in fact, the Cat Fanciers’ Association lists “solid black” as a color option for 22 breeds), the Bombay breed is likely the kind of cat you picture most often when you imagine a classic black cat. Most black cats also come with golden yellow eyes, thanks to the high melanin pigment content in their bodies. And though all-black cats can be either boys or girls, there’s a slightly higher prevalence of the coloration in male cats.

It's not all bad luck

In some legends, black cats are actually good luck, as is the case in Great Britain (though not Yorkshire!). The belief in the power of black cats is so strong that they’re still given as gifts to brides in the English Midlands in order to help bless new nuptials.

It does seem that the influence of the Egyptians and their love for cats held over in some European cultures. Sailors and their wives alike believed in the good luck power of the black cat, with some fishermen keeping such cats on board while their women kept black cats at home for a double dose of fortune.

The Japanese also honor black cats as symbols of good luck, and they are viewed as particularly important to single women, as having a black cat is believed to lure in many fine suitors. Up in Russia, all cats are viewed as lucky and have been for centuries.

Appreciation

Plenty of black cat imagery shows its whiskers during Halloweentime, but while you can (and should!) spread the good word of inky felines and their more positive associations during the autumn holiday, you can also honor the animals come summer, celebrating “Black Cat Appreciation Day” every August 17th.

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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