I went in blind to The Paw Project — a new documentary about the practice of declawing and Dr. Jennifer Conrad’s fight to ban the practice in California and spread the word about its cruelty far and wide. I had poorly developed preconceived notions about what feline declawing is. It seemed so simple, so convenient for pet owners who had concerns about their possessions and their kids. But after watching The Paw Project, I suddenly had the sheer tonnage of a counter argument pushing down on the rickety construct of my past beliefs.
The Paw Project is unrelenting in it’s portrayal of declawing as inhumane and cruel. Testimonials from veterinarians and animal rights advocates fill the screen, bookending heart breaking video of both domestic and exotic cats as they suffer through the aftermath of this seemingly archaic procedure, dealing with painful and debilitating infections and deformities as bits of claw return and cut into sensitive flesh.
“It’s like amputating someone’s fingers.”, this is the takeaway, and yet, as the film moves to the legal fight to ban declawing in several municipalities, we hear concerns about whether clawed domestic cats are more prone to be abandoned and eventually destroyed if they are not declawed (a claim that is refuted in the film). We also hear about the cottage industry that has risen up around the procedure, with some vets admitting that they make around $500 for what amounts to a half hour’s worth of work.
Is the fight to ban the ban’s on declawing that occurred between Dr. Conrad and her allies and the California Veterinary Medicine Association an ethics debate, or is it a more onerous battle between those who are looking out for the safety of animals and those looking to hold onto a pretty sweet financial deal? The film doesn’t explicitly lay out which angle it thinks that the CVMA and other Veterinary associations are playing, but without comment from the CVMA in the film, it is hard for us to understand the shape of their argument.
Is that the fault of the film? Not really. This is sort of a “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game” situation. By that, I mean documentaries are rarely presented without bias. It is, however, always appreciated when they trust their audience to make up their own mind between two soberly and faithfully presented arguments. Without that leap of faith, we are given a mountain of evidence and opinion that can overwhelm and even temporarily set us on a different intellectual path (evidence, when presented without filter or objection, can be a powerful thing), but it is a hollow conversion that either fades over time or fills our heads with factoids and not real, hard won knowledge.
For someone to feel something deeply, for it to latch onto them, they’ve got to come to that conclusion themselves. Sadly, The Paw Project takes our hand and guides us a little too heavily on this very controversial issue; but on the plus side, it did push me to explore the issue, leading to a conversation with Paul Smith, a friend who works as a zookeeper. Paul strongly agreed with the idea of a ban on declawing, and gave me some valuable insight from his unique vantage point when I asked him about those in his profession who might advocate declawing in an effort to more safely deal with lions, tigers, and other like animals:
“I believe it’s cruel in any practice, regardless of the rationalization. Even as a zoo keeper I’m uncomfortable with many of the procedures required to safely house wild animals. I personally believe that if an animal is required to undergo painful body modification in order for it to be worked with by handlers, than A) the handlers and/or facility aren’t doing their jobs properly, and perhaps that animal shouldn’t be with handlers or in that facility in the first place. My number one concern is the quality of life of the animals.”
That conversation (and a couple of others) and a bit of research helped me develop and cement what I think is a wiser view than I had previously had with regard to declawing, and without The Paw Project, that wouldn’t have happened. If you have an interest in this issue and you want to start learning a bit more about it, this documentary can be an asset, but it shouldn’t be the only one that you use.
To learn more about The Paw Project and Dr. Conrad, check out her website. The film is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City from now through October 3rd. Check the site for other screenings across the country.