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Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Dr Jennifer Conrad Is Helping To Change Our Worl

Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Dr Jennifer Conrad Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Martita Mestey

I wish I knew was that despite all these veterinarians telling me that declawing was something that they abhorred doing, that they would spend so much money to defend the right to do it. Seems like that doesn’t fit and that they don’t actually want to stop doing it.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Conrad, DVM.

Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Conrad has cared for wildlife on six continents for over two decades. An impassioned advocate for animal welfare, she has seen first-hand the suffering and exploitation of animals, destruction of habitat, and gratuitous hunting — all of which threaten the welfare and very survival of many species. In 1999, she founded the Paw Project — a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that educates the public about the painful and crippling effects of feline declawing, promote animal welfare through the abolition of the practice of declaw surgery, and rehabilitate cats that have been declawed through reparative surgery.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born into a family of doctors, but they only treated one species, humans. I wanted to treat all other animal species, except humans, so I became a veterinarian. I felt that helping animals live better lives was a worthwhile use of my time. I love the creativity involved in treating wildlife and exotic animals.

Plus, my patients are so much cuter and they are never drug-seeking, never hypochondriacs, and never trying to figure out a way to sue me. That’s what human doctors have to deal with. I just have to deal with potentially getting bitten.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

We are trying to protect cat paws and claws. Cute, little, squishy kitty paws. That may sound funny but it’s a very serious problem that kitty paws are in jeopardy of being declawed (toes amputated) in the United States. In fact, 20–25 percent of American cats are declawed.

The rest of the world considers declawing unethical or has made it illegal. It’s probably a $1B business for U.S. veterinarians, so it’s not going anywhere unless we can make it illegal here. Just for reference, declawing is so predictably painful that it is used in clinical trials to test new pain medications.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As a young veterinarian, I was taking care of about 40 big cats, lions, cougars, tigers, jaguars, leopards,, who were suffering from declawing. I thought that I had to do something for them. I talked to human hand surgeons and asked how they would address a hand injury where the person lost the first knuckle of every finger. After all, that’s what declawing is. It really should be called, “de-knuckling.”

I ended up taking a four-year-old tiger to surgery for his horrible limp and after we completed the operation, he stood up and never limped again. I felt like a TV evangelist saying, “Heal!” It was that dramatic of a change. Then I started to do the surgery on more and more big cats, with excellent results. Soon word got around that I was repairing the damage caused by declawing and then I realized that I will never get all the paws repaired unless I stop others from declawing.

One day, I met a friend of a friend, who had just rescued a declawed cats from the streets, and this new friend, Hernan Molina, was also the deputy to the mayor of the city of West Hollywood, California. He was visiting me and telling me about his new rescue cat who was declawed and I was telling him that I probably have to knock down (anesthetize) a lion whose paws I just recently repaired. I was frustrated because she got her toes redone and had these green bandages on and she wouldn’t let me take them off; I think it was because her paws felt so much better in her new green “shoes.”

I turned to the deputy mayor and said, “We just have to make declawing illegal. Can we make declawing illegal in West Hollywood?” In 2003, West Hollywood became the first city in North American to ban the procedure.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Soon after banning declawing in West Hollywood, I attended a meeting for veterinarians who work on cats. I sat down to a “lunch and learn” and immediately all the other people at the table stood up and moved away. They were punishing me for what I had done in West Hollywood.

I honestly thought veterinarians would be happy not to have to declaw, but these people were “pissed.” I sat there alone for about a minute and then it came to me, “I don’t work for veterinarians; I work for cats and no cats are mad at me for banning declawing.”

It was then and there that I decided to make this my life’s work. We have now banned declawing in two states, New York and Maryland, and we are working on California and others. We have banned declawing in 11 U.S. cities, 3 U.S. counties, and 8 Canadian provinces. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Starting a nonprofit is tedious but not hard. First, one must figure out the mission and then start solidifying the goals on paper. The rest is formulaic step by step and takes a lot of time and effort but isn’t difficult, just boring.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

After banning declawing in West Hollywood, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) sued the city because the law interfered with veterinarians’ bottom line. We won the suit at the appellate level so the CVMA made a law in the state of California that banned declaw bans!

Soon after, we were able to get seven more cities in California to ban declawing. The CVMA hoisted itself on its own petard. This whole struggle is the subject of our award-winning documentary, The Paw Project. This film has a Hollywood ending and is not the typical animal movie where you finish watching and feel hopeless. It’s currently streaming on the internet.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I was anesthetizing a tiger for a paw repair surgery and she went down with only about half the drugs that I thought she would take. We began to carry her in on the stretcher when she bolted upright and jumped off the stretcher and ran for the hills. Fortunately, she had a leash on so I was able to poke her with the rest of the drugs and she went nighty-night again. I learned that if things seem too good to be true, they are!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I would say that my boyfriend, now husband, was the biggest driver in my success. We are truly complementary to each other. Where I am the dreamer and the one who makes leaps, he follows with pure will and diligence that fills in the gaps. I was never a good student, whereas he was. He works so hard and makes sure that everything is as good as it can be for cats. He is a surgeon for humans, so the fact that he has joined me in my dream to end declawing is truly remarkable. I think a lot of men wouldn’t be able to apply themselves so intensely to making their wives’ dreams come true.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes, everyone can help. The community can help by educating each other on humane ways to deal with cat scratching. Nail trims, vinyl nail caps, appropriate scratching surfaces like scratching posts and pads, double sided sticky tape placed on furnishings all work to stop unwanted scratching.

Society can come to the conclusion that declawing in the United States and Canada has to stop. It should no longer be considered anything but animal cruelty. Citizens can tell their veterinarians to stop. Politicians can ban declawing. So many want to, but some may think that caring about animals is frivolous.

Most politicians are bright enough to multitask. They can do things that are good for humans and animals. By the way, declaw bans are good for society because fewer cats end up in shelters after bans go in to effect, so that means fewer taxpayer dollars are used to destroy declawed cats.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Many veterinarians were afraid of losing the revenue stream when they stopped declawing. Some veterinarians report that declawing cats is their “bread and butter.” The truth is that vets who voluntarily don’t declaw make more money because the public is seeking veterinarians who don’t declaw. Vet who won’t mutilate a cat to protect a couch care more about the cats than the money.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. One thing that I didn’t anticipate when I first started the Paw Project was that there would be people willing to spend millions of dollars to fight me when all I was trying to do is protect kitty paws. That was a giant, “Wait. What?!?” It turns out that declawing cats might be a $billion business in the USA.
  2. The second thing that I wish I knew was that despite all these veterinarians telling me that declawing was something that they abhorred doing, that they would spend so much money to defend the right to do it. Seems like that doesn’t fit and that they don’t actually want to stop doing it.
  3. I didn’t anticipate that no matter how much evidence I had to prove that declawing cats was bad, that the people who want to still declaw cats would ignore the science. For instance, declawed cats bite more and use the litter box less. These behaviors arise because they have no claws to defend themselves so they have to resort to biting and because it hurts their amputated toe stubs to dig in the sand so they stop using the litter box. These are the behavioral reasons cats lose their homes not because they are scratching furniture. The opposition to the declaw bans always says that cats are going to lose their homes if they can’t be declawed, but really, they lose their homes BECAUSE they were declawed. The facts don’t seem to matter to the opposition. They also ignore the facts that a veterinarian should not be telling people who are immunocompromised or have thin skin or are on blood thinners to declaw their cats because declawed cats BITE more. Cat bite wounds are more dangerous than cat scratches!
  4. I would have liked to know that taking up this cause was going to take up my life. In some ways, having a cause that drives you is a blessing. You have a goal that is bigger than you and you have the purpose of making the world a better place than what you started with. In other ways, you get consumed and while other people have a 9–5 job and time off on the weekends, you’re always working.
  5. The last thing that I didn’t know was that it takes a lot of time and effort to change the status quo. I thought that once I showed people how bad declawing was, people would stop. It is so obviously wrong. Why don’t they stop? I can’t really explain that except that I know that some people double down on things rather than admit they are wrong.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If you want something to happen, it’s best to make it happen. Pretending that you can’t do it because you’re only one person is an excuse. Everything starts with just one person pushing to make the change. It does help to have more people helping, but more people will join in as soon as they see that you have started it. I always tell my students that if your goal is to get to San Diego, if you get on the freeway and never get off, you will get to San Diego. It’s the people who get off the freeway and don’t get back on who don’t get to San Diego.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I learned this: “That the most happiness you’ll ever feel is when you make someone else super happy.”

I like to apply that to animals. Think about it. What is more gratifying than to give an animal a toy or a treat that that animal loves? Nothing. By working for animals’ happiness, I feel like I can be happy. Whenever I make a wish, I wish that all animals were content and happy. Wouldn’t that be great!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to meet Kate McKinnon and Mark Ruffalo. They like cats and would see that cats should never be declawed. Then they could post stuff on their social media and educate millions about the harmful effects of declawing.

How can our readers follow you online?

@pawproject,, #PawProject

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Dr Jennifer Conrad Is Helping To Change Our Worl was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.