In a modern-day twist, well-meaning spirits worry that people are particularly cruel to the dusky critters around Halloween, when all sorts of supernatural symbols enter the spotlight.
Some humane agencies go so far as to ban black cat adoptions close to the holiday to prevent them from becoming haunted house props or targets of teenage pranks.
The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA is taking the opposite tack by pushing for people to adopt the agency's 16 or so sable felines, which are hard to find homes for during the rest of the year.
"It's just perplexing to shelter workers across the country black cats and dogs stay longer in the shelter than light colored ones," PHS spokesman Scott Delucchi said. "No one knows exactly why."
Based partly on tales of supposed satanic sacrifices of the critters, the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals plans a one-week moratorium on black cat adoptions starting Wednesday.
"We've seen all kinds. Sometimes people see a dead animal and just assume it was a satanic cult," SPCA LA President Madeline Bernstein said. "Sometimes it's a cat that's been eaten by a coyote."
Other times, she said, the agency has heard reports from police of ritual or mock-ritual killings of black cats at Halloween.
Less sensationally, Bernstein said commercial haunted houses will pick up a cat from a city shelter for about $30 and dump it when business stops.
"When you look at the follow-up after the holiday and you look at the number of cats that are returned," she said, "you realize you can be a little bitprophylactic."
Delucchi said locally, stories of black cat abuse appear to be just tall tales and worries of mass abandonment after Halloween are equally overblown.
"I don't know that it's really based on anything except fear," he said. "In San Mateo County, we don't see cats turning up Nov. 1 that have been harmed. As far as we know, it hasn't been realized."
At the PHS shelter east of Highway 101, would-be adopters pony up $70 and go through up to an hour-long orientation before they become pet owners.
Delucchi said it's unlikely someone would go through the screening hassle to snag a black cat for some unsavory short-term use, so the agency puts its faith in its usual adoption process rather than risk throwing up roadblocks between potential pet owners and abandoned animals.
"You really can't afford to be that restrictive," said Delucchi, noting that holidays are an optimal time to link people and pets. "If your goal is to find homes and find good homes, we feel we have the right approach. We have to trust people."
Adoptable black cats and other critters can be seen on the PHS Web site, http://www.phs-spca.org. The shelter is at 12 Airport Blvd. in San Mateo. Adoption hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and until 6 p.m. weekends.