When we think of animal cruelty, certain violent acts may come to mind. Animal cruelty, however, still exists in other forms that are, in some cases, perfectly legal.
California veterinarian Jennifer Conrad is on a mission to stop one of these forms of legalized cruelty with her crusade against declawing that started with Drifter, a three-year-old, 550 pound tiger. Like other big cats who suffer from the potentially crippling effects of this surgery, Drifter was barely able to walk. In his case, the surgery that Conrad performed revealed the cause of his suffering – huge chunks of nail that were growing under his skin.
Following Drifter’s surgery, Conrad started documenting her work helping exotic cats in the hopes that what she was seeing could be used to ban the practice and help other animals who were suffering. Her efforts paid off; declawing of wild cats was banned in California in 2004, which was followed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture issuing a nationwide ban for big cats two years later, according to the Dallas Observer.
225 surgeries later, her attention turned to house cats and her footage turned into something else: The Paw Project, a documentary that is described as “an uplifting David versus Goliath story that chronicles the 12-year battle of the tiny grassroots movement to rehabilitate felines that have been maimed by the mutilating amputation of their toes and its efforts to protect other animals from being subjected to this unnecessary, but lucrative procedure.”
The most common declawing procedure, formally known as onychectomy, is more than just taking off claws; it’s a 10-toe amputation that’s considered to be the equivalent of cutting off human fingers at the top of the knuckle.
The procedure has been banned in a number of countries over ethical concerns. However, even though it has been banned for big cats in the U.S., it’s estimated that approximately 25 percent of all domestic house cats have been declawed.
The majority of cats are declawed over concerns about their scratching behaviors, which are a cat’s natural way of marking territory, maintaining their nails and stretching. Unfortunately, instead of modifying environments or behaviors, some people love their furniture more and go the route of modifying their cats via surgical mutilation, even though there are a number of alternatives available from scratching posts and repellents to nail caps, among other things.
Like the pro-devocalization crowd, some supporters continue to argue that this surgery helps keep cats in homes, but declawed cats still end up in shelters and may have additional medical and behavioral problems, such as aggression or refusing to use the litter box, that can make them even harder to place. It’s also impossible to know how a cat will react to this surgery beforehand.
While some animal advocacy groups oppose declawing on welfare grounds, other organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners, are not opposed to it and recommend it as a last resort. The veterinary community itself remains divided. Some won’t do it, but others are happy to continue raking in profits from a procedure that critics call “the vet industry’s dirty, bloody, money-making secret.”
So far, declawing has been banned in a few cities in the U.S., and may soon be on the legislative agenda in Colorado. Meanwhile, we can all help pets who may become the victims of mutilation at the hands of vets by asking our own if they perform declawing and devocalization surgeries and finding another practitioner if they say yes.
As for the film, it’s set to show in a few select cities before it makes it’s official theatrical premiere at New York City’s IFC Center, where it will be showing from September 27 through October 3.
For more info about efforts to stop declawing and the documentary, visit The Paw Project.
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