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Black Cats On Hold In Salem

Little Midnight, an 11-week-old black kitten, sits in his cage at the animal shelter and looks out plaintively at the visiting humans who may have come to take him home.

He'll have to wait until next month, though, when the Northeast Animal Shelter lifts its October ban on adoptions of all-black and all-white cats.

Like many shelters across the country, the Salem shelter wants to guard against the possibility, however remote, that a Satan worshipper would take a black or white cat home to cut off its paws. Or that a sadistic hooligan might decide to torture a kitten to death after seeing one too many horror movies.

"A shelter has to be cautious," Cindy Shapiro, president and founder of the shelter, said Thursday. "If there's anything questionable about them, we don't give them pets to take home."

But October bans on adoptions of monochromatic mousers may be more a sign of the extraordinary caution some shelters exercise about would-be pet owners than a real fear that the felines will fall prey to a Satanic sacrifice.

"I don't know where it all began," said Betty Bilton, the Northeast shelter manager, adding she'd neither seen nor heard of ritualistic cat sacrifices on the North Shore.

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Shelters do worry that people with superstitions or less-than-honorable intentions might be looking for a black cat on Halloween, said Stephanie Frommer, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Society for the Protction of Cruelty to Animals.

The MSPCA shelters in Boston, Brockton, Hyannis, Methuen, Springfield, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket allow adoptions of black and white cats during October, said Frommer, but may be a little more careful in their screening.

"When anyone comes into a shelter to adopt, the process is not simple," Frommer said. "They're not going to come in and walk out with a cat in most cases. They'd probably give up long before they got out the door with an animal."

Salem shelters may feel they have to exercise extra caution because the city's history of hanging witches -- including at least two dogs, thought to practice witchcraft -- in 1692 has given rise to a thriving Halloween tourist trade. The city is full of shops selling gory costumes and storefront haunted houses.

Bilton is careful to distinguish between sadistic wackos and the city's large witch population, who don't like being linked to Satanic cults.

"The witches of Salem come in all the time," Bilton said. "They're very good pet owners."

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