Episode 119 – Dr. Jennifer Conrad

Dr. Jennifer Conrad is a passionate animal welfare advocate who has cared for wildlife on six continents for over two decades. Currently, Dr. Conrad’s professional responsibilities are divided between working with nonprofit wildlife sanctuaries for unwanted and abused animals in southern California and administering her own company, Vet to the (Real) Stars, which provides humane veterinary care to animals appearing in television and movies. In her former role as head veterinarian at a wildlife sanctuary, Dr. Conrad founded the Paw Project, which rehabilitates big cats, such as lions, tigers, cougars and jaguars maimed by declawing.

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Website: https://pawproject.org/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pawproject

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Dr. Jennifer Conrad is a passionate animal welfare advocate who has cared for wildlife on six continents for over two decades. Currently, Dr. Conrad’s professional responsibilities are divided between working with nonprofit wildlife sanctuaries for unwanted abuse animals in Southern California and administering her own company Vet to the (Real) Stars, which provides humane veterinary care to animals appearing in televisions and movies. In her former role as Head Veterinarian at a wildlife sanctuary. Dr. Conrad founded The Paw Project, which rehabilitates big cats such as lions, tigers, cougars and jaguars maimed by decline.

Hey, Dr. Conrad, welcome to the program. Thanks, Chris, for having me well, we’re really excited to have you and to learn about The Paw Project and your history. So why don’t you start us off and just give us a little bit about you. Well, I’ll tell you this. I love animals, and I actually, love cats. And so when I it was at UC Davis for vet school, they gave me the option of tracking what kind of vet I was going to be, and I chose to do wildlife. Mostly because I wanted to be able to work on any animal in any situation. The rest of my family is in human medicine so they could only work on people but I can work on any animal.

So I started working in wildlife, and that brought me to a sanctuary in Southern California, where I was the Head Vet. When I got there, I saw all these big cats who had been declawed, which is, you know, declawing is a misnomer. It is not declawing, it is de-knuckling. It is amputating a toe bone in order to remove the claw. You know, when you look at our hands, the nail grows from the skin, but when you look at an animal’s hands, the nail grows from bone, and so in order to remove the claw, you have to remove the bone. And I saw these big cats, and they were in various states of suffering from being declawed. But all of them were suffering. And I thought, “you know what? I’m a veterinarian. I’m gonna fix this.” I love it. And I went and talked to human hand surgeons about how they would repair if someone lost a bone in their fingers. And I talked to veterinary surgeons about how they would repair a paw. And we came up with this surgery and we decided we’re going to repair the paws of these big cats.

Well, in April of 2000 I took a three and a half year old tiger to surgery. He was only three and a half and he had been declawed and he was already limping. So I just said, “you know what he’s going,” and we went into surgery. We shaved his paws and we started reconstructing his paws. Now, not that I put new nails in. But what I do is I reconstruct the anatomy so that even though their paws are shorter, they have the ability to grasp and open their paws, like more or less like a normal cat, just without the claws. So I took him to surgery, and when he woke up, he was standing like a normal cat. Now, before he had been standing kind of on its wrists like he had oven mitts and his paws were loose and floppy. Yeah. And when he stood up, he was standing like a regular cat. I thought “was that just because he can’t feel his paws because we anesthetized them so much? Oh sure, sure. And he never fell back down. And so I thought, Wow, I felt like a TV evangelist.

So this cat had such a remarkable transformation. I started doing it on every single cat I could. Big Cat, I’m talking about that I could find who needed it. And by the time I had done eight cats, there was not a single cat who hadn’t improved markedly. And I thought, “wow, this has got to stop people from wanting to declawed their cats.” Well, what happened in a nutshell was Hernan Molina, who is the deputy to the mayor of West Hollywood, came to visit me because he wanted to see what I was doing. He had just found a declawed cat who had lost its home, it was in the parking lot, and he heard that I was doing these declawed repairs. So he came to visit me and we went and we looked at this lioness, an African lioness whose paws I had repaired a few days before, and it was time to take her bandages off. And she had these green bandages on. And she was like, “my new shoes are making my paws feels so great. You cannot take them off.” So it’s gonna have to knock her down to take her bandages off. And I was so frustrated, cause I had just knocked her down and we repaired the paws, and I just wanted to get those off so that she could start, you know, not have to worry about having bandages on too long. And I turned to Hernan and I said, “hey, why don’t we make it illegal to declaw in West Hollywood? Because I’m so sick of this problem,” and he’s like, “oh, we could do that.” Wow, just like that? And that started, Yeah, that started The Paw Project. That sentence changed my life. I started to realize that this was a big problem and that we had to do something. And so in 2003 we banned declawing in the little city of West Hollywood. It’s only 35,000 people, but that made world news. It was such a big deal. And then I decided, “Okay, I’m gonna protect all cats from declawing any animal I can from being declawed by a crusade.” And that started The Paw Project. Wow.

So this was the first place you worked at out of vet school? Well, it wasn’t the first place. But it was the first place where I was the head vet. Okay. And so you’d notice that this is a problem, you said, “I’m gonna do something about it,” and that’s really just where it began. It just began from you waking up and saying this is not acceptable. No, it’s not acceptable I’m their doctor. And they’re clearly suffering from this procedure that another doctor did to them. I have to do something about it. So now when did this become like an accepted standard? I mean, is this something that they teach in vet school? The first article that I know of about the declawing was in 1952. This guy named Meissner, Alfred Meissner, who was a Canadian born veterinarian who worked in Illinois. He took it on it like a dog and pony show about how you could do this to cats. It’s unbelievable how cruel what he wrote was, because the anesthesia was so poor and how he was doing it. He was just chopping their nails. I mean, their bones off with a dog nail clipper, basically and just with no pain management, nothing. And this took off in the United States and Canada. He took it to England and the English are like, “yeah, no, that’s basically sadism and it’s masochistic, and it is cruel, and unnecessary mutilation. No.” So it didn’t take off anywhere else in the world. So he took it and spread it throughout the United States.

It became a very, very big business in the United States, where veterinaries would like supersize a spay or neuter, “hey, do you want a declaw with that?” And people didn’t know what it was because it says declawing when it should be called de-knuckling. And then people would be like, “what you’re gonna do, de-knuckle my cat? I don’t think so,” but declawing sounds like some magical manicure that only a vet can do, but it really isn’t. It is removing bones, so that’s where it started. And that’s why it’s such a hard thing to fight because it’s not only very lucrative for veterinarians. They’ve also been doing it for, you know, 60 plus years. And the other reason is because people don’t want to admit they’ve done something wrong. And because cats are so stoic, it’s hard to know that they’re in pain. So a lot of people will say, “oh, my cat’s not in pain. It’s fine. I declawed my cat. It’s fine,” but it’s not true. I can show them study after study where you can show that Declawed cats have altered the way that they walk. They’ve altered their confirmation, and so they have back pain and joint pain, arthritis, all sorts of problems. But most people are oblivious to that. Yeah, because it’s not something I mean, when you go to vet, you’re the respected person, right? So we bring our cat to you. And like you said, if the vet says kind of like, “buy two, get one free,” it’s like “oh, okay, sure. I mean, you’re the vet, you wouldn’t do anything bad to my animal.” Yeah, exactly.

And that’s why it’s such a hard problem to fight because people who don’t do their research before they go to the vet and they trust their veterinarian. “My vet would never do something bad to my cat. My vet loves my cat,” and maybe the vet does love your cat. But this is not in the best interest of your cat. If it were at all good for cats, I wouldn’t be fighting like this. I mean, I just want to make sure that listeners understand: 1) that people often say, “well, I’d rather have a cat declawed, than have it lose its home.” And if that were true, I would be on your side. But declawing cats because they come home from the vet and their paws are hurting. They go to dig in the litter box, they will stop using the litter box. They will like me. “yeah, I’m done with this thing. It hurts too much.” So now you have a cat who’s peeing and pooping outside the box. That is a big problem. And if you think that someone who’s intolerant of cat scratching isn’t gonna be intolerant of a cat not using the box. Yeah, think again. Because that’s why declawed cats lose their homes. They lose their homes because they’re not using the box and they lose their homes because they’re biting. And why are they biting? Because they have no choice. They have no other way to protect themselves. And also, they’re in pain.

Yeah. I mean, it’s it is kind of interesting when you think about it. For those people we have, we have four cats, right? And we’ve got, you know, all sorts of scratching posts all over the place because it’s just a natural instinct for cats to scratch. And I know that something that certainly people don’t like it when cats are scratching up their furniture or anything like that. Like you pointed out, if they really knew, what the long term implications are they might be more willing to try and solve that behavior problem or put more scratching posts or any of the I mean, there’s lots of solutions on the market that can curb the behavior, to get them to do it, where you want them to. Exactly, and it is a behavioral issue, and behavior issues should be solved with behavior management. Surgical issues like let’s say, a tumor should be solved with surgery. Behavior issues should not be solved with surgery, which is the case of declawing and also the case with lobotomy. It’s basically a surgical solution for a behavior problem. And that is wrong, period.

Yeah, I know you mentioned before when he took this and was going to other places in Europe, they rejected him. So is it standard practice in Europe and the rest of the world like it is in the U. S? No, it’s really only in the U.S. and in Canada. And in Canada, I would like to give the Canadians kudos because seven out of their 10 provinces to abandoned it the last couple of years with The Paw Project pushing them, and they did it. So now we have three provinces left in Canada and 49 states in the United States. To ban it, that’s what we have to do. Wow so yeah, which state has banned it completely? New York State banned it on July 22nd 2019. Oh, wow. So just recently, just this year, yes, just this year, Governor Cuomo banned it. And his signing letter, you know where he describes why he signed it, he said, “this is archaic. It’s unnecessary, it’s cruel and it causes pain. We do not need this.” Wow.

So now is The Paw Project then trying to use that to get other state legislatures to pass laws on this? Well, it took us five years in New York. But because New York is a state that people look as like a leader, Florida introduced legislation immediately. New Jersey has already introduced legislation. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, West Virginia, believe it or not, Rhode Island. We’re hoping for a legislation in Colorado and in Arizona in the new year, so we have a lot of places working on it right now. We’re working on it in Portland, Oregon, in Austin, Texas, and I don’t know if you saw. But on Wednesday, St. Louis studied the problem, and they voted their first committee hearing. It passed unanimously in St. Louis, Missouri. So it is moving. The problem is, of course, that the Veterinary Medical Associations, which started the trade organizations that are interested only in keeping that bottom line for veterinarians high. They always oppose us.

That’s interesting, because you would think that with all of the research and the science that we have nowadays that it would be really difficult for them to oppose it. Well, it is difficult to them, but that’s the new world, is that it doesn’t matter what the facts say. It matters what they want to say, and so they’ll come up with these excuses that sound sort of plausible. Like, for instance, “oh, you know, what about older, thin skinned individuals who aren’t immuno compromised? What if they can’t have their cat’s declawed? Are they gonna lose their cats?” But if you look at what the CDC, you know, the Centers for Disease Control, Third Authority, N.I.H., U S Public Health Services, Canadian Medical Associates, all these human health organizations say declawing a cat is not advised to protect human health. One, they bite; two the claws, if you’re trying to protect human health, remember that the bite wound is way more significant to immuno compromised people and declawed cats bite more. They have to, to protect themselves. So and then remember, people come up with the “oh cat scratch fever.” Well, that’s just total misnomer. It’ is not–It’s a song. Yeah, it’s totally though cat scratch fever comes from flea poop. So it just as easily could have been called paper cut flea poop fever. Because it’s any wound that gets flee poop in. No it doesn’t rhyme as well for the song. Right. But I still think it would have been more accurate. Yeah, that is really fascinating. And it’s interesting. I mean, as you know, how were shaped over time by songs, by popular culture by again, “why would I challenge my vet? if my vet says this is a good thing? I wouldn’t change that.” And because these veterinary associations are still opposed to it.

So where do you see the biggest opportunity? It sounds like you’re getting a lot of traction with some of the states and the provinces. Well, I think that that more that the public knows, the more I think we’ll have success because once the public is in on what is actually happening and that there are many veterinarians who are absolutely opposed to declawing because they know what it is and they really care about cats. So I think that once the public really gets an idea about it, then they won’t go to veterinarians who declaw and then veterinarians who don’t declaw will get more business. And so it will force the market to veterinarians who don’t declaw. I’m curious. Is there any statistics that are tracked as to how many declaw surgeries are performed with the U. S. every year? What we know is that 25% to, in some places in the Midwest, which is where you are, it’s up to 50% of cats are declawed. So we know that that is established in the veterinary literature.

So when you think about this, the veterinary medical associations say it should be a last resort only implemented after all, the humane alternatives have been exhausted. And yet 25 or maybe 50% of cats, like, “that’s a last resort when that many are being declawed?” And the other thing that I think people should realize is that 76% of declawing is performed on cats who are fewer than eight months old. So again, how could that be a last resort? You’re talking about a kitten. It would be like taking the teeth out of a puppy because it chewed your couch. What? Yeah. No, don’t go to surgery. When you have a behavior issue, go to a behaviorist, learn how to protect. And the other thing I want to make sure people understand is that when a cat is clawing a couch, you should be honored. They’re clawing where you sit because they want other cat to know, “hey, that is my dad or my mom and no other cat is allowed near. And I’m marking this territory so that everyone knows this is my mom or my dad.” And so it’s an honor, they’re marking you. They’re saying, “I love you, You love me and this is our relationship. And since you didn’t provide me with adequate scratching post, I’m doing the couch because I gotta mark you.” Exactly. “I got to make sure everybody else knows that you belong to me.”

So that is really interesting. You know, obviously we have domestic cats, but I didn’t realize that this was a practice on the big cats as well. Yeah, it is unfortunately. Well, let’s say this. Fortunately, it’s less and less in the sense that California has banned it for the large, wild and exotic cats. California actually banned that in 2005 and that was The Paw Project doing that. And the other good news is the USDA, which is the governing body over people, who have these cats. If they have it legally, it also says you can’t do it. But what’s more interesting is that the Endangered Species Act recently it was judged that declawing is a take of the you know, which is it’s a violation of the Endangered Species Act of declawing these big cats. So that’s federal. And that is across the continent, I mean, across the United States. And I am proud to say that The Paw Project had a big hand in that. Sounds like you guys have really been instrumental in starting the movement.

So where do you take it from here? Tell you this. It is getting St. Louis. If everything goes well, it will be done in the next few weeks. So that’s interesting. All I can say, I don’t know when this will air, but in St. Louis will be done in the next two weeks or three weeks, maybe. We’re trying very hard in Massachusetts because it seems like they want to do this because New York did it, so they got to do it. New Jersey the same. So we’re working across the country. But I honestly have to tell you that it would make me most happy is if the population of the United States and Canada just said “this is wrong, we’re not doing it.” So I don’t have to go state to state of province to province banning it. It’s so obviously wrong to amputate a cat’s toe bones because it’s marking the furniture, because it wants you to know how much she loves you. It’s just so wrong. Yeah, it does seem counter intuitive but, like a lot of problems, it’s an education thing and getting people to understand what’s really happening. Because, as you pointed out, it’s not called de-knuckling cause nobody would do that. It’s called declawing. “Well, yeah, you just take the claws off, but everything else is fine.” Right.

So there’s definitely a big awareness and education that needs to be done to let people know what’s really happening here. Yes, they need to know, and day have to know this also, that it is one of the most painful, routinely performed surgeries in all of veterinary medicine, and yet many, many vets are afraid of pain meds in cats cause cats can have weird reactions to pain meds and so they don’t give any pain meds. Yeah, the hurts me, to even think about that. And, you know, our cats are our children, really. I mean, they all have their place in the household, and, you know, they all have their good days and bad days and behavior and all these other things, and they’re part of our family. And to ever think of them in pain, it just breaks my heart to think that that’s kind of a normal practice. So I’m really glad you’re taking this on–this initiative.

And I’m kind of curious as you look back upon this, is this how you thought things would turn out when you started this back in 2003? No, I gotta tell you, I used to think when I started in 2003 I thought, “oh, all veterinarians are gonna be so happy I’m doing this because nobody would want to do this to a cat. It’s disgusting.” I have never done it to a cat. I gotta tell you I’ve never declawed a cat. I’ve prepared their paws, but I’d never actually done the declawing and I thought all the veterinarians would be so happy that I’m doing this—uh, no. And in fact, I’ve gotten some really funny letters. I mean, they weren’t intended to be funny, but they would say, “Jennifer Conrad, DVM? Don’t you know that claws can put an eye out?”

And then one time, I was at a conference for cat vets and I thought people would like me. This was right after many people would be happy with what I did. This was right after it passed in West Hollywood, and I sat down at one of those lunch and learn, you know where you get your lunch and then someone’s gonna lecture you. I sat down at this crowded table and everybody got up and left because they were so mad. Because they knew who you were. Yeah and I thought, “okay, well, guess what. There is not a single cat on the planet who’s mad at me for what I’m doing. And I don’t care if you stupid veterinarians are mad at me because I know this is right.” So they were mad at you because it’s taking revenue out of their business? Or it’s making them look bad because they’ve always offered it or it’s you know they do it better than the guy down the street, so they don’t want the guy down the street to keep doing it and they stop. You know, that’s that’s how they look at it. But, you know, regardless, it is wrong. There’s no question it’s wrong. History will show, all these people that it’s wrong, and I really use cats as my barometer. And if there was a cat who was mad at me for doing this, then I would seriously rethink it. But no cat. There’s no cat who’s mad at me for doing this. No cat wants to suffer this way.

One of the interesting things I want to point out is, and you’ve actually gone so far as to get a movie put together, that’s on you said it on Amazon Prime now? Yeah, it’s on Amazon Prime it’s called The Paw Project. It’s a documentary about the crusade to make it illegal to declaw cats. It’s about California, and it’s got the most Hollywood ending you could ever imagine. It’s got such a happy ending, and for anyone who’s interested in watching it, just know that all the big kitties that you see film who were limping, they all got their paws repaired, so don’t feel bad about them. Well definitely. We’ll make sure to put a link to that so people can find that. But it’s on Amazon Prime, as you pointed out. YouTube on other places, too. Oh, sure, sure.

So Dr. Conrad, I’m just curious. What have you learned about yourself from doing this project? First of all, I learned that I really love cats and that I feel like my whole existence has to be to do something to protect them. I mean, I love all animals. Don’t get me wrong. Dogs get declawed, too. But for some reason, when dogs get declawed, people are like “huh, dogs? Why would you declaw a dog?” As if it’s different than a cat? It’s the same. It’s removing a knuckle. I really feel like it’s a shame that I have to spend my life fighting something that should never have taken foot in the United States or Canada. But I feel like there are cats, all of New York, since we banned declawing, there are no cats getting declawed, and that is the cats of 20 million people. In California, we’ve banned declawing in eight cities. Those are the cats of 5.2 million people. In Denver, Colorado, we banned declawing those are the cats of 700,000 people. So we’re working on it, trying to protect cats on a big level because, as you know, you can toil with animal after animal, and that is gratifying. And you could help a lot of animals by doing it that way. Or you can change policy. And once you change policy, you change it for all cats. Yeah, absolutely. And it’s the harder road.

But I’m really excited that you took that road, and it’s gotta feel very rewarding now to look back 16 years later and see that they’re passing state laws now because of you. That—where this is now going to be illegal, so that’s gonna feel very rewarding. It’s rewarding, but it’s never enough because I look at New York and go “wow, one state down, oh, 49 to go. Oh, no.” Right, right. And even though at Canada, seven provinces down, there’s still three more provinces. That’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s very gratifying, but I wish it would catch on like wildfire and just go and be done. And then I could have another career. Yeah, but we’ll certainly do what we can to try and help you. And I’m really glad that you came on the show today to talk about it and raise awareness to this.

Is there anything else, Dr. Conrad, you want to mention before wrap things up? I just wanted to let everyone know two things. One is if you have a declawed cat and you’re a rescue group and you’re afraid that this cat has bad behaviors, please contact The Paw Project because we are repairing the paws on little cats, domestic cats. And we have a program called New Lease on Life, that’s helping declaw cats and we’re taking these cats out of rescues, who cannot–they cannot be adopted because they have behavior problems, getting them out of pain, reconstructing their paws. And we’ve had 100% success of finding them new homes because they are now not acting out. And the other thing I wanted to let everyone know is, there is no good reason to declawed cat period. And so please, please don’t fall for it. Yeah, and that’s really good words to end on. So Dr. Conrad, thank you so much for coming on. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Yeah, And you, too.

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