05/26/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Jennifer Conrad has no sympathy for fed-up cat owners who de-claw their pets when they shred the upholstery. In fact, she has nothing but scorn. "Since when do we live in a country where the crime for scratching furniture is getting your hands cut off?" asks the Santa Monica wildlife veterinarian, who owns four cats. "Scratching is what a cat does—it's a fact of life."
And if Conrad has her way, it will soon become a cat's inalienable right. In April she led a successful campaign in West Hollywood to outlaw the practice of declawing, which she says often leads to painful injuries. Similar bills are in the works in other cities and the California state legislature. While many vets insist the 20-minute procedure is humane—"It's less painful than spaying," says Richard Schumacher, executive director of the California Veterinary Medical Association—Conrad, 36, says it should be banned nationwide, as it is in Australia and parts of Europe. "Declawing is like having your fingers severed with little guillotines," she says. "Some cats become so crippled they are euthanized."
This isn't Conrad's first animal crusade. Raised in Malibu, she recalls handing out antiwhaling flyers on the beaches of her hometown when she was 11. "She feels what animals are going through," says her sister Tracy, 40, an ER doctor. After graduating from vet school at the University of California-Davis in 1994, Conrad began working on big cats at animal sanctuaries. Six years later she developed a surgical technique to remove bone fragments and reconnect tendons after declawing—and soon launched her campaign to stop the practice altogether. "I'm relentless," she warns. "In 10 years everyone will say, 'Oh yeah, sure. I was always against declawing.' "