The Cruelest Cut: How a common cat surgery became the next battleground for animal rights

The Cruelest Cut: How a common cat surgery became the next battleground for animal rights
Photoillustration by Jay Vollmar. Source photography:

Over the years, Jennifer Conrad has come to see her fight as one against greed and stupidity, a nasty pocket of the stuff festering deep in the heart of her own profession. When her crusade began, though, Conrad wasn't thinking that way. She was focused on one patient, Drifter, a three-year-old, 550-pound tiger who was in agony and pissed off about it.

Growing up in a family of physicians in Malibu, California, Conrad was always passionate about animal welfare. She had gone to veterinary school with the idea of helping endangered species and had traveled to six continents, working with exotic animals and often trading her services for room and board. Around Hollywood, where she was known as the "Vet to the (Real) Stars," her patients included many famous film performers, including the tiger featured in The Hangover.

But Conrad treated less-celebrated felines, too — big cats that had worked in circuses or in Vegas-style magic acts until they became too old or sick and were farmed out to carnivore sanctuaries. Many of them had been declawed in their youth in an effort to make them easier to handle onstage. The surgical procedure, known as an onychectomy, involves amputation of the final segment of toe bone as well as the attached claw and can have numerous long-term complications, including chronic pain, bleeding, lameness, arthritis, aggressiveness and nail regrowth.

Dr. Jennifer Conrad explains the difficulty of reconstructive surgery in a scene from The Paw Project.
Photo courtesy of THE PAW PROJECT MOVIE
Dr. Jennifer Conrad explains the difficulty of reconstructive surgery in a scene from The Paw Project.

Several of the tigers and lions Conrad saw had been practically crippled by the anatomical changes wrought by the surgery. Some walked on their wrists or elbows, or hardly moved at all because putting weight on their toes was too painful. One of the worst was Drifter, a Siberian mix with a pronounced limp. He was so debilitated that Conrad decided to organize a surgical team to reattach tendons in Drifter's paws that had been severed by the declawing.

In the course of the innovative five-hour operation, the team also removed hefty nuggets of nail fragments, several centimeters in length, that had been growing under the skin, causing pain and distorting Drifter's gait. The results were dramatic.

"After surgery he was standing up like a normal cat and walking like a normal cat," Conrad recalls. "He never fell back down onto his wrists. Then we knew we were on to something."

Beginning with Drifter's operation in 1999, Conrad began documenting on film her efforts to rehabilitate declawed exotics. She paid for the first eight surgeries out of her own pocket. She figured that the "before" images might help persuade authorities to ban the declawing of wild animals and that the "after" pictures could prompt their handlers to seek relief for those already afflicted. She was right on both counts. In 2004, thanks largely to her efforts, California banned the declawing of wild cats; two years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted a nationwide ban on declawing for virtually all large carnivores.

Conrad has now performed around 225 tendon-repair surgeries on 76 lions, tigers, panthers and other declawed exotics. But her film project has morphed into something else: an emotional, provocative yet scientifically grounded documentary, The Paw Project, about her decade-long battle to stop the declawing of the common American house cat.

Most pet-friendly nations already outlaw onychectomy. The United Kingdom's Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons deems the procedure "not acceptable" under most circumstances, and laws in most European countries explicitly prohibit it. In Israel, declawing a cat can result in a fine of 75,000 shekels — more than $20,000. Authorities in Brazil, Japan, Turkey and Australia also frown on the practice.

Yet in the United States declawing is still a common — and lucrative — part of the veterinary business. A surgery that's now considered too barbaric for wild animals is widely marketed through coupons and special spay-neuter "package deals" to cat lovers of all stripes. Studies indicate that 22 million cats, about one-fourth of the country's total domesticated feline population, have been declawed. On average, vets charge between $400 and $800 for the surgery, which takes less than ten minutes per paw and can be done with a scalpel, laser or guillotine-type trimmer.

In more than 90 percent of the cases, pet owners request the surgery on a cat's front paws (and sometimes all four) because of concerns about Fluffy scratching the furniture. Veterinarians justify the procedure by describing it as an effective solution to a behavior problem that might otherwise lead to the animal being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter. But Conrad and other critics of declawing say it's the vet industry's dirty, bloody, money-making secret, an excruciating and unnecessary procedure that's fraught with complications and mutilates cats. In many cases, critics say, declawing leads to even more problematic behavior — including biting and a refusal to use the litter box — that dooms cats to shelters and euthanization.

"If declawing helped the cat in any way, I would not be fighting like this," Conrad says. "Declawing does not keep a cat in its home. If someone is intolerant of a cat scratching a couch, they're really going to be intolerant of a cat not using the litter box."

Conrad has a letter from one veterinarian in Southern California who bragged that "he declaws every cat that comes in the door because it makes him between $75,000 and $80,000 a year," she says. "The bottom line is that veterinarians make a lot of money doing this, and they recommend it without disclosing what the surgery does to cats."

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