This is the full report of the chat with the founder of The Paw Project Dr. Jennifer Conrad and the editor Allan Holzman after a special screening of the film on the University of Southern California campus. The two were interviewed by Alessandro Ago. Click here to read the full article.
What are some of the considerations for, in terms of actually making the film, as opposed to beginning the Paw Project, as a greater initiative to help stop this problem?
Jennifer: I think that the film was born out of the fact that we were chronicling what was happening to these cats. The first filming I ever did was to film a big cat before and after surgery so I can have someone else judge whether or not they were truly better on how they were walking. I was working at Wildlife Waystation and there were a lot of volunteers who were in the film industry who offered to help me do certain things. When we won at West Hollywood, we knew we had a film, and it became a really interesting film once there was this conflict with the Veteranian Association suing, and then Allan was really able to punch it up by making it tight and, in my opinion, a nail biter!
Tell us about that, Allan, what were you looking at when you first came onto the project and what sort of structure came in through the editing?
Allan: In my career of documentaries, I’ve basically gone from impressing people to impressing animals, and there is absolutely no difference. The first order of business was the level of inspiration and that was Jennifer’s struggle and the survival of cats to endure the pain. I felt what was missing in the approach was that the film wasn’t being seen from the cat’s point of view, which was why the film started with the cat’s eye. There were all these people talking about their cats, but there were no cats, so putting the cats in the courtroom was very important. The other level was to take out all sense of a narrator and forced it into a subjective story that the emotions came from the people who really cared about cats. I saw it as a thriller, so I used a lot of thriller music. The first piece of music I started off with was from “The Bourne Identity.” It is a thriller because it’s a big battle against a very evil thing. That was the general approach.
This kind of activist cinema is not necessarily just aimed at the general audience, although I’m sure you’d love that as well, but the people who can make more decisions about legislation around the country, how are they getting access to this movie?
Jennifer: We are screening our movie to cat groups all over the country, and then they are bringing their friends, and we are asking them to bring people who don’t understand what they understand, and so we are building a body of educated people. To go to the legislator and say, “Hey, we want to make it illegal to declaw cats,” we find that they think they have other more important things to do, but if we can let the film permeate into the American Consciousness and the Canadian Consciousness, then we are thinking that legislators won’t feel like they are sticking their necks out anymore, because it will be what people want.
What effects have you seen so far from the film being out there because it’s been out for a couple of weeks now?
Jennifer: We have people who are interested in banning declawing statewide in California, so that Senate Bill 762 will no longer apply if we make the entire state to ban cat declawing. The other day I got a call from a woman, whose husband is the senator in Pennsylvania, and she said, “we want to make it illegal in Pennsylvania.” I said, “Ok, I’ll help! whatever I can do!” That to me is exactly what we wanted from the film. One of the greatest effects was that we screened the film in Malibu. We had a packed house, and within 24 hours the veterinarians in Malibu could no longer declaw cats and they have not declawed a cat since. One of the criticisms we’ve gotten over and over again is that it’s one sided, and it’s hard to get the other side because they’re wrong, they know it and they don’t want to be filmed. We had to use clips from Youtube for that other side's opinion because no one would come for the interview, so of course it’s one sided, but we tried to get both sides it’s just that there is no other side so what can you do?
Allan: As a filmmaker, once you discover the truth about something, you want to express it, and you want to give it every bit of energy, but when you find people who are lying and deceit, you don’t want to give them any room to win. You want to express the truth, so I don’t see the film as a one sided point of view being a weakness, it’s a strength.
Let’s talk about your approach there, because you clearly come out against this, and you have the medical evidence and compassion on your side, and what you’re going up against is people motivated primarily by greed, so how do you even start to ask them to represent their side of the story?
Jennifer: Well, they don’t want to say that it’s about greed, they want to say, “Well, We are trying to save this poor little kittie’s home and so we have to declaw it,” or “this person here has HIV and how cruel of you to take the cat away from him.” Those arguments are so easily refuted by the fact that there are tons of cats who’ve lost their homes because they’ve been declawed and then the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which has the ultimate authority on HIV, says “Don’t declaw the cat!” so for veterinarians to pretend that they have these pure motives and that’s the only reason they declaw a cat is despicable! The other reason is that with 25% of American cats being declawed, and veterinarians making somewhere between 500 – 1200 dollars an hour doing it, I’m pretty sure that they don’t want to stand up and say that and so that’s their problem. They are doing the wrong thing and they don’t want to talk about it, well I don’t know what else to do except calling them to the carpet and say, “Change and everybody will leave you alone!”
Tell us about using clips from Youtube. First of all, Allan, were you involved in finding things needed to be there to finish telling the story?
Allan: Yeah, of course. Google search is the basic tool for that. In terms of Youtube, we actually did trace everyone who puts something up but a lot of people say no, they couldn’t, and they wouldn’t give the rights to their videos.
The film is really tight, it’s quite short, so I’m sure that’s kind of an unusual length for most normal theatrical distribution outlets but perfect for TV. What has been the philosophy so far in terms of how it’s getting distributed?
Allan: Well, if there was a moment of laps or anything in the film that could not be completely proven, Jennifer took it off. She insisted to have a lot of screenings and paid attention to the audience responses.
Jennifer: I wanted people to sit through it, knowing that it wasn’t probably everyone’s issue like it is mine, and I wanted them to feel the power of us winning, because so often in animal movies, it’s a feeling of despair when you walk out of the theater, because you feel like the problem is bigger than anyone can handle. I wanted people to finish the film and walk out of the theater going, “Oh, all I have to do is tell 5 people what declawing is, call my vet and tell them I don’t want them declawing anymore, and I’m part of this movement!” That has been very successful!
Do you sense a general reluctance from those cat owners who trim paws?
Jennifer: Well, I think we all know that dogs have owners, cats have staffs. There is some reluctance, there is a lot of people who don’t really know how to deal with a cat because cats are very different than dogs. This movie, even though it’s supposed to be entertaining, it has an educational component where we were trying to make sure that people know how to deal with this problem humanely like clipping their nails, putting their socks on, get their appropriate scratching post. Some cat owners feel like it’s hard to trim the nails on a cat, but there are so many other alternatives that are humane so nobody has to declaw.
Because this issue is so surprising to so many people, including myself. What other dirty secrets are happening in the world of animal medicine and surgery?
Jennifer: There are a lot of things. What I wanted to do with this film was to take on veterinarian medicine, because veterinarians go into med school supposedly lobbying animals, but so many of them betray those animals when they come out. For example, a veterinarian is complicit at the very first steps of puppy mills, where these poor little doggies are kept in cages and bred over and over again until their little babies can be sold and there is a veterinarian who’s saying this is ok. There is a veterinarian who’s saying it’s ok to cut the beaks off of chickens so that they don’t hurt each other, there is a veterinarian who says it’s ok to keep chickens, cows, or pigs the way we keep them. If only the veterinarians stand up and say, “No! this is not right! You can’t treat a little cow like this and put it in a box!” The veterinarians have to stand up and remember that their patients are so precious and they have taken an oath to protect them. There are so many veterinarians, who consider themselves nothing more than a TV repairman, but no, this is a call to action for veterinarians to stand up and protect their patients, and I think the world will be a better place if they do.
You got change being made at the legislative level, but are we seeing any change in the academic side of it, in the institutions that are training people?
Jennifer: We showed the film on Thursday at Colorado State University and I’m curious to hear how it’s going to change things there. I know that there were veterinarians in the audience who were totally surprised to face it, that it was standard in our industry and we were letting this happen. I think it’s going to start changing at the university level. I am getting a lot of letters from a lot of vet students saying, “I know this is wrong, I don’t want to do it. Can you support me? Can you help me get through this?” For them to hear from me saying, “You’re right, it is wrong, and trust your conscience!” I do have to say that I have a friend who’s at UC Davis, which is where I went to school and apparently in her first year of ethics class, they put me up on the board and said, “This is who you do not want to be! You do not want to be a veterinarian who follows her own heart. You have to follow the industry standard.” They had an hour long discussion about how you do not want to be Jennifer Conrad! It just strengthens my argument because I know that if I make all sort of veterinarians mad and the vet establishments mad, I know I’d never made a cat mad and that’s really what I care about.
Audience questions: (Dr. Jennifer Conrad answered all the questions below)
1. Do the cat bans imply to house cats all the way up to lions and tigers?
The declaw bans, in certain cities, are for all animals, and in certain cities are only for domestic cats, but in 2005, we were able to pass legislation in the state of California. You’re no longer allowed to declaw any wild or exotic cats. What’s interesting about that is the CVMA let that pass, they didn’t support it but they didn’t oppose it. They said the reason was a weight issue, but it protects a 7-pound Pallas’s cat, which weighs less or equivalent of a house cat, so it doesn’t make sense. In 2006, we were able to convince the USDA, which is the governing body over all the big cats who are displayed, bred or sold, to change the animal welfare act so that no magicians, or anyone who displays animals are allowed to declaw big cats, or defanging them. We are on the road to protect all cats so we could join the rest of the world, because you realize that declawing is illegal or considered unethical in the rest of the world. It’s only done in North America and 25% of cats is huge!
2. When can I get a hard copy of this movie so I can show people I know about this cause?
Allan and I are working on making the DVDs and we’re hoping to have them out by November.
3. Is declawing taught in veterinarian schools?
In some, yes. When I went to vet school, they taught it, but fortunately I didn’t learn it because I was learning exotic animal medicine so I didn’t participate in those things, but I do have friends who went to school and brought their own cats and declawed them, and that’s at UC Davis, so you can imagine that it’s quite standard, it’s in the vernacular of what veterinarians are supposed to be learning and what is supposed to be a standard surgery. That’s why I’m calling on all of you to please help, because your facebook pages and your ability to reach people are going to save cats! If you care, and you can pass the word, you’d be surprised how many people don’t know what declawing is, and if they hear it from you, they might never do it, or might stop a cat from getting declawed. You are actually saving your friends $500 dollars and a life time of pain for your cats.
4. Have you shown the film or planned to show it in Chicago or Illinois?
We’re showing the film in Chicago on Wednesday, which is where the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) is located. The AVMA contacted us a week ago and said, “we want a copy of the film because we’re in it, we hear.” We politely deleted the message and we’re letting them pay to see it and it’s showing on the 30th in Chicago so we’ll see what happens!
5. Have you shown the film at vet schools?
Yes, I showed it at Western, which is the school in Pomona. It was really successful because there were 35 kids who showed up and a large percentage of them said that they were planning on declawing cats, and after the film they all said, “Well, I guess I’m not declawing cats.” It’s hard to show the film at vet schools because it is kind of anti-establishment and so it’s not like they are inviting me.
6. Do you have plans to distribute it to other countries?
Yes, I do have plans but I’m not there yet. It will be on Video on Demand on November 5th.
7. Have you tried to reach a wider audience by airing it on Television?
We are trying to, but how many of you are reluctant about coming to see a movie about cats on a Sunday afternoon? The problem is that these executives at these places think that nobody cares so they think it’s sort of a niche film, but what they don’t understand is that cats are the number one animal in people’s houses in the United States. It’s the number one pet and there are a lot of people who love their cats. They’re not as social as dogs people because if you have cats you often stay home with your cats. A lot of people compare this movie to “Black Fish,” but how many people actually have orca in their backyard? And how many people have cats? A lot! And 25% of them are being declawed! This film matters to a lot of people, but it’s hard to get past to the executives.
8. For the surgery you did for the big cats, do you do them for house cats, as well?
For all the cat lovers out there, every one of those big cats have their feet repaired, so you don’t have to worry about them. All the little cats that we showed with the declawing issue, they were all clips taken from Youtube, and we didn’t have any cat get declawed for the film or anything like that. I could never live with myself for that. The repair surgery is hard to do on a big cat, it takes about 20-45 minutes per toe, and on a little cat it’s really hard because the anatomy is very hard to find, so there are some salvage procedures that are being done, it’s just very hard to reattach tendons.
9. How long does the whole surgery take?
It’s 20-45 minutes per toe and it usually takes 5 hours per paw to repair. Actually, we have 76 big cats, we’ve repaired their paws and we’ve done over 225 surgeries because we have to do one paw at a time and sometimes we have to go back in on a paw. It was tremendous amount of work, and that’s why it has to stop, because I’ll never catch up if it doesn’t stop.
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The film will screen this Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 in Chicago, IL. Read more about the Paw Project and their screening schedule, click here.