Cat fight breaks out over declawing animals in California

SAN FRANCISCO — The law of unintended consequences has seldom been more clearly illustrated than by the cat fight unfolding from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Veterinarians who did not want cities meddling in their business persuaded the state Legislature to bar local governments from banning the practice of declawing cats — beginning in 2010.

Not wanting to be pushed around themselves, nearly half a dozen cities are rushing to prohibit the controversial procedure before the January deadline, striking a blow for rights both animal and municipal.

This week alone, the score was Cities 3, Vets, 0.

Although the local governments still must finalize their actions in coming weeks, Los Angeles City Council voted 11-0 on Friday to ban declawing. Beverly Hills voted 5-0 on Thursday, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 on Tuesday.

In the process, city council chambers have rung with testimony about "litter box avoidance" and kitty press-on nails, knuckle amputation and bullying big government.

Just listen to John A. Mirisch of Beverly Hills, where the council voted to ban "onychectomy" and "flexor tendonectomy" within its city limits unless the procedures are medically necessary.

"Onychectomy, commonly known as declawing, is the practice of amputating a cat's first paw joints, including the claw of the first knuckle," said Mirisch, the councilman who introduced the ordinance. "Indeed, I find this practice to be a prima facie instance of animal cruelty, and I don't need Big Brother in Sacramento or a veterinary board to tell me otherwise."

Mirisch's sentiments were echoed at the Los Angeles City Council meeting by Councilman Paul Koretz, who co-proposed the Los Angeles ordinance: "I don't think we should allow people at the state level to dictate to us our local actions."

The Santa Monica City Council voted 6-1 in favor of a ban on Oct. 27. Such a prohibition is scheduled for a vote in Berkeley on Nov. 10. Malibu stopped short of banning the procedure but is working on a measure signaling its opposition.

Jennifer Conrad, founder of the Paw Project, which seeks an end to declawing, said that California is at the forefront nationwide in banning the procedure. It has been prohibited or condemned in more than a score of European countries.

About the only thing both sides in the declawing controversy agree on is what the procedure actually entails: Using a scalpel, clippers or a laser, a veterinarian cuts off the last bone on each toe on a cat's forelegs.

"Because each digit is amputated through the joint, this procedure is painful and requires the appropriate treatment of pain before, during and after the procedure," according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, which supports the practice as a "last resort" for destructive cats.

Said Koretz: "It is an amputation. ... It often leaves cats crippled and in pain for the rest of their lives."

Such pain, he said, can cause cats to avoid their litter boxes because it hurts them to dig. As a result, they often are sent to shelters by frustrated owners.

But the California Veterinary Medical Association argues that with modern medical techniques — especially laser surgery — and appropriate pain management, cats are often up and walking shortly after awakening from anesthesia.

"If it comes down to a cat being euthanized, losing its home or losing its claws," said association president Mark Nunez, "being euthanized or losing its home is a worse outcome."

Californians can thank — or blame, depending on their perspective — a Persian cat named Alexis Carrington for all the fuss.

Alexis, named after the "Dynasty" television character, belonged to West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, who had her declawed "because I didn't want my furniture ruined."

It seemed like a good idea, he said, but "I had no idea what I had actually done to my cat."

Six years ago, Hernan Molina, his City Hall deputy and an "avid cat person," explained the procedure and asked Duran to push for a ban in their small city. In 2003, West Hollywood became the first city in America to ban declawing, spurred in part by Duran's "guilt and remorse" over Alexis' missing toes.

"Cats have claws and fangs for protection from hunting. Dogs bark because they're pack animals. Birds fly," Duran said. "Why would we want to debark a dog, declaw a cat or clip the wings of a bird? But then, I'm a lefty."

The California Veterinary Medical Association took West Hollywood to court to overturn the ban, which was eventually upheld. This summer, the Legislature passed SB 762, a law pushed by the veterinarians association to stop cities and counties from regulating the practice of health professionals.

As the organization said in letters to Santa Monica and San Francisco officials, "The decision to declaw a cat should remain between the owner in consultation with his, or her, veterinarian on a case-by-case basis."

Veterinary association officials believe that there are times when "declawing may be the only option for a cat owner."

But on Thursday, a past president of the group told the Beverly Hills City Council that he had second thoughts about his organization's efforts on behalf of SB 762.

"I regret it," said William A. Grant, a second-generation Orange County veterinarian. "Because it's now forcing a lot of local communities to make decisions in a very short time frame that I think are uninformed decisions."

La Ganga reported from San Francisco, and Colby from Beverly Hills. Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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