The word “dogged” describes cat champion Dr. Jennifer Conrad perfectly. She is the founder and director of The Paw Project, which educates the public about why declawing cats is inhumane, with the goal of getting this painful surgery banned completely in the United States and Canada. And while there is a long way to go, she is getting it done.
We met some years ago at the Algonquin Hotel in New York when we both were there for resident hotel cat Hamlet’s charity party. This reserved woman’s lovely smile and social veil belied her impressive resume and amazing achievements to protect cats from this mutilating surgery, often done for no other reason than to preserve the family couch and drapes.
In a world where activism tends to be loud, in your face and, often, disrespectful, Dr. Conrad is, like a typical cat, patiently watching and observing, with an innate sense of the right time to pounce and lobby for her cause — politely. Even on The Paw Project website, she urges cat owners to ensure the vet of their choice doesn’t declaw and not to be afraid to decline being a patient with a polite “No, thank you.”
Declawing is a surgical procedure, sometimes inaccurately termed “onychectomy,” which means “removal of the nail.” In reality, the animal’s toes are amputated at the last joint, which is the only way to remove the nail (claw) that grows from deep within the toe bone. Most people do not realize that bone — not only the nail — is removed. While some felines will have immediate complications from the procedure, it may be many months or years before the damaging effects of declawing become obvious. Declawing may result in permanent lameness, arthritis and other longterm physical and behavioral complications.
As a newly qualified veterinarian in 1999, Dr. Conrad was working with big cats at an animal sanctuary in California, which was home to lions and tigers that had been previously kept as pets and whose former owners had had them declawed as cubs believing it would protect them from injury.
Dr. Conrad started The Paw Project out of necessity. She explains, “I couldn’t believe the horrible outcomes I was seeing from declawing. I felt something must be done to help these animals. I had 40 big cat patients who were all suffering in different degrees from the unnecessary and harmful amputation procedure.”
She tells the story of a young mountain lion named Kona, who was crippled from declawing. “He could barely walk,” she says. “We started performing repair surgeries on these cats and were astounded by how much better they became. Kona could walk again after his surgery. It was miraculous.”
Dr. Conrad knew that what was happening to big cats was also being done on a large scale to domestic cats, too. She believed it had to be stopped.
A meeting Dr. Conrad had with Hernan Molina, deputy to the then mayor of the city of West Hollywood, John Duran, who was visiting her at work, changed everything.
She had to take the bandages off a lioness whose paws had been repaired a few days before. Dr. Conrad recalls, “She didn’t want me to take the green wraps off her feet. I think it was because she woke up from surgery and her paws felt so much better that she liked her ‘protective shoes.’ It was then that I turned to Mr. Molina and asked, ‘Can we just make declawing illegal in West Hollywood?’”
And, in 2003, West Hollywood became the first city to ban declawing in the United States. Bans in the California cities of Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Francisco, Burbank, Santa Monica, Culver City and Beverly Hills followed.
“Our goal is to educate the cat-loving public and make them aware that declawing is simply bad for cats, bad for the cat’s people and bad for the cat’s veterinarians,” Dr. Conrad says. “No one wins from a surgery that causes cats permanent damage and pain, causes cats to avoid the litter box and begin to bite, or makes people give up their beloved cats, now declawed and suffering, to shelters or for euthanasia.”
In 2017, Paw Project Director Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo successfully got a ban passed in Denver, Colorado. And then a ban to end declawing in Nova Scotia, Canada, precipitated six other Canadian provinces to enforce declawing bans, too. Dr. Conrad lobbied on, and in 2019 Linda B. Rosenthal, a New York Assemblywoman, got the entire state of New York to stop declawing. That was a real coup for Dr. Conrad and The Paw Project. Later that year, St. Louis, Missouri, also passed a municipal ban.
“We are now sponsoring bans in multiple states such as Massachusetts, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario,” Dr. Conrad confirms.
She shares that the best thing that happened in 2020 was that VCA and Banfield, two of the largest veterinary chains in North America, decided to stop declawing. This brought 2,000- plus hospitals and 10,000-plus veterinarians on board this cause.
“I am grateful to them for taking the time to listen to me and that they chose to do the right thing,” she says. “Now that the industry standard is changing, organizations like the American Association of Feline Practitioners feel more comfortable changing and refusing to endorse ‘feline-friendly’ veterinary practices that continue to declaw.”
When not lobbying the goals of The Paw Project and adding to her legislative milestones assisted by a now-growing team of volunteers and veterinarians, Dr. Conrad still gets to work with big cats by providing veterinary assistance on demand on movie sets. Big cats like the tigers that starred in the Life of Pi and The Hangover have experienced her hands-on love, care and attention.
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