THE PAW PROJECT’s Dr. Jennifer Conrad Talks Declawing, Filmmaking, and More
By Paul Smith
Dr. Jennifer Conrad is a veterinarian who spent years working with exotic animals, mostly big cats, in sanctuaries and the entertainment industry. Her eyes were opened to the horrific side effects of the practice of declawing cats, a cruel and unnecessary procedure which often leaves the animals crippled and traumatized. Her quest first to find a method of repairing the damage already done to the patients in her care and then to end the practice entirely in her home state of California, and eventually nation and even world wide, became the subject of the new documentary film The Paw Project. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Conrad about her work and the film.
Early in The Paw Project you talk about your work as a veterinarian for many Hollywood animals, as well as animals in wildlife sanctuaries and rescue facilities. Many of those animals were large cats: tigers, lions, cougars, etc. You helped to develop a medical technique for at least partially repairing the damage and alleviating some of the pain caused by the declawing those animals had suffered. How long were you working in that environment? How long did it take to develop the treatment?
Well what happened was I’d been working in zoos, like the Los Angeles Zoo and the Santa Barbara Zoo. And as you know in zoos you don’t really see the declawed big cats. After finishing there I went to live in Africa for awhile, and when I came back I decided I wanted to take care of these animals that were in sanctuaries. And that’s when I saw…I had at one time forty big cats who had been crippled by declawing. I thought wow, this is a huge problem. I began to ask for help from veterinarians who worked in sanctuaries. The answer across the board from everybody was well, that’s just what happens. And I thought wait a second, we’re doing this to them? They’re in this much trouble? Am I the only one that’s seeing this? So I had contact with an exotic animal zoo pathologist, his name is Michael Gardner, and I asked him to send out to his email list a question of how do you declaw a cat and why do you do it that way. And the answers came back, and 50% of them said we declaw cats by removing the entire third bone in their toes because if you don’t do that you get nail regrowth. And the other 50% said we declaw cats by crunching the bone in half, because if you don’t do that you get hammer toes. So I began to realize that there’s no right way to declaw a cat, and all these cats I had were suffering. So I did my research, I went to a bunch of veterinarian surgeons and asked them how they would repair this, and I went to some human hand surgeons and asked them how they would repair it, and came up with a surgery that I felt might work. I went to a vet surgeon named Kirk Wendelburg, he’s in the Los Angeles area, and he said yeah we can do that, let’s try it. So we took the cat, named Drifter, big tiger, took him to surgery. And it was pretty cool because when he woke up he was standing like a cat’s supposed to stand, y’know, up like in high heels. And I thought oh he just can’t feel his feet right now. But he never fell back down. He never fell back onto his wrists. And that’s when I thought wow, I think I’m onto something. So we started repairing paws, and to date we repaired the paws of 72 big cats in over 225 surgeries. All the cats you saw in the film had their paws repaired.
Are the methods used to repair the paws of the big cats effective at all on the smaller, domestic cats?
Yes, it can be. But it’s a lot harder to find the anatomy, to find all the little pieces in the smaller cats. In the big cats we’re actually attaching tendons from the bottom to the top, so even though the toe is shorter it will function, they can flex and extend it. In the little cats that anatomy is often impossible to find, so we can only do sort of salvage maneuvers. It’s hard, it’s very hard. And remember, to repair the paws of the larger cats, a tiger for instance, it takes between 25-45 minutes per toe. To declaw it takes around 10-20 minutes.
The anti-declawing campaign you launched was met with some serious, perhaps surprising resistance. We see some of the public battles that you fought in the courtrooms and town halls of Southern California. Did anything ever get more heated than what you show in the film? How serious did things get?
Well it got pretty serious in the sense that the amount of money that was being spent to protect the right to declaw cats was getting, I would estimate, well into the millions of dollars. You begin to realize how serious people are when that type of money is being spent. And, um…y’know there was a time when I was being attacked personally. So…it was so great to have these victories that the bad parts I don’t think about as much any more. It was all just part of the crusade. There’s that saying, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The things I endured…like walking into a city council office and having one of the aids pull me aside and say, “We hear you’re not really a veterinarian.” And I’m like, “Oh really? Where’d you hear that?” It’s upsetting, because you think they’re going to try and strip me of my degree. And they say they heard I went to vet school online, and I’m not allowed to practice in California. And I’m like I went to UC Davis, y’know, you can look it up. And they felt better. But it was good to hear things like that, and to clear those things up. I think part of why so many people questioned whether I’m actually a veterinarian is they think veterinarian medicine should be united on these things. But I think veterinarian medicine needs to really push forward and learn not to just do what’s most expedient for an owner.
In the film we hear testimony from a few cat owners on their experiences with having cats declawed, and one woman in particular who was really affected by it and feels it was the worst decision she ever made in her life. I’m proud to say if I were ever advised by my vet that my cat needed to be declawed I’d say, “uh, no she doesn’t, thank you.” But there certainly is that experience of being told by your doctor that this or that procedure is necessary, and many owners trust that, or don’t know any better.
I’m not trying to characterize veterinarians as bad people. I think veterinarians very often think that when someone brings in a cat that’s scratching the furniture they have to do something like offer declawing instead of saying hey there’s all these other humane alternatives. I think they often think if they don’t do something then the cat is going to get thrown out of the house for clawing behavior. But what veterinarians haven’t realized, which is a huge message of the film, is that declawed cats are robbed of their primary defense and so begin to bite more. You can ask any groomer or vet tech whether that’s true and they will tell you absolutely. And another thing is when a declawed cat comes home from being in the hospital and the poor kitty goes to the litter box and goes to dig and says, “Oh, ow, this place now hurts. I’m never going in here again.” They associate the box with pain and refuse to use it. So declawing, statistically, makes a cat more likely to lose its home. Because if someone was so intolerant of scratching, that person is going to be really intolerant of biting or not using the litter box.
We just screened the film in Denver, and there were a whole bunch of cat rescue places and they stood up and unanimously told all the veterinarians in the audience that if they think they’re saving cats by declawing to please call them first. They would rather take a cat with its claws than a declawed cat, because declawing will not keep that cat in a home.
How much effort went into reaching out to pro-declawing advocates?
Y’know I actually reached out to them a lot. Multiple times, at all different levels. They all refused or didn’t respond. And then that AVMA film, which you see in my movie, came out. So…
When did you get the idea to make the film? I believe I read that you had a shorter film already?
Yeah, what happened was I’d been repairing the paws on all these big cats, and I’d been filming the before and after because I wanted people to see that they could walk better after the surgery. You know how with a limp, some people will see it as a grade four or a grade three or whatever? I wanted this absolutely objective data so other people could see the before and after and rate it for me. And they didn’t know whether the cat had had surgery or not, they didn’t know if it was footage of before or after. So I’d written a paper for the American Association of Zoo Vets in 2002 where I discussed that these cats before surgery were rated fours and fives in lameness, and then after surgery were rated ones and zeroes. And when those numbers started coming back, that it was making that profound a difference, I began to use that footage to make a documentary to show what the surgery could do. And I had all these people working with me…you know how it is when you work in a sanctuary environment how many volunteers there are and how much talent there is. And they started to say, “hey, let’s make a bigger film, besides just the before and after. Let’s film the surgery and you talking about it.” And then when I went to West Hollywood, it was just a serendipitous thing that I met the deputy to the mayor; he’d come to see my surgery and we were talking about a lioness whose paws I had fixed and she wouldn’t let me take her bandages off because I think she just thought her feet felt so wonderful she didn’t want anyone to touch the bandages. So we were talking and I asked what he did and he said he was a deputy to the mayor of West Hollywood and I said, “Hey, let’s make it illegal in West Hollywood.” And that’s when we really got serious about making this larger documentary, because it became about the whole journey to change the world for these cats.
Well what was the experience of actually putting together the larger The Paw Project film? I mean you are now a writer, producer, and director.
[laughs] Well y’know, that’s just because who else could do it? It’s not because I have some new talent or skill. It’s just that no one else knows the story the way I know it. There’s nobody who knows what the battles were as much as I know them, and knows what people said, and so on. So I became the filmmaker. Not that I did it by myself, believe me. There are a lot of people that helped. But when it came down to it, there’s no one that knows the story the way I know it. So I had to be those things.
Was it easier or harder than you expected?
Well I had really good people. I have a very good editor, and a very good sound editor, lots of very good people. So they kind of guided me through it, and because they were so competent it made it easier for me. The other thing that I’ve learned working in the world of animals is you let people do what they’re good at. If you don’t micromanage they do a better job because they feel more invested in it. So my editor, his name is Alan Holdsman, he really began to feel creative about it, so I was very grateful for that. And then my sound editor, Bill Jackson, he was amazing because we didn’t have the greatest sound for a lot of the footage. It was filmed in public, outside, stuff like that. And he really was able to make sure the sound was sharp and people could understand what was going on. So those two guys made the film much more professional than I ever could’ve done it.
So have you been bitten by the directing bug? Any future film projects you’d like to mention?
Well…I think that I’m enjoying the power of film. As someone who’s been an advocate for animals my entire life, I enjoy the fact that the film just played in Seattle, and I wasn’t there, but there are now all sorts of people on the Paw Project team that want to make it illegal in Washington. It’s fun for me to know that the film is bigger than I am, it’s bigger than Jennifer Conrad. It’s out there and it’s doing its job. When we screened in New York there were some veterinarians in the audience on the night we did the Q&A and they felt inspired to go back to their clinic in Long Island and put pressure on the other vets, and they were able to stop cats being declawed in that clinic anymore. And that was my goal, and it makes me really happy to have accomplished that.
I confess, I was frightened to watch the film at first. As a zoo keeper, an animal lover, and specifically a cat person, I worried about my ability to make it through the more difficult subject matter here. Even the trailer choked me up. But it really is a positive film, and a very encouraging, uplifting message.
I also am a kitty person, and I’ve been a kitty person my whole life. I didn’t want to make a film that made kitty people want to kill themselves. So that’s why I tried to make it a positive film. And also because we really were champions for the animals. We did it for them. And so often in the world of protecting animals we lose, we just blatantly lose. And since we won, I wanted to celebrate that.
So what can people do to help The Paw Project?
You can go onto https://www.pawproject.org and make sure you’re on our mailing list. Or you can go to https://www.facebook.com/pawproject and join us so that you’re aware of campaigns in your area. For example, we’re starting the process in Colorado, and if we know where the constituents are and who’s in the area willing to write letters and so on it really helps. So we need to be able to find you. And the other thing I ask people to do, which I ask in the film, is could you please tell five people who don’t know what declawing is. And call your vet and ask them to stop declawing. And if they’ve already stopped the practice, let them know how proud you are of them. This is really a campaign of education. If we can educate everyone…y’know once everyone knows what declawing is, there won’t be a demand for it. Because if you love your cat you wouldn’t want to put them through this.
To learn more about The Paw Project and how you can get involved, please visit the website https://www.pawproject.org. The film continues to roll out across the country. Check the site for upcoming screenings or to get information on how to get a screening in your area.