Tara Czekaj of Brighton Heights was recognized by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for her work on banning the declawing of cats in Pittsburgh.
Photo courtesy of Tara Czekaj
By Matthew Benusa
A local Northsider has won an award for her work to protect some of our cutest neighbors. Tara Czekaj of Brighton Heights was recently presented with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) Pennsylvania Humane Policy Leader of the Year award for her work alongside Carol Whaley to help pass legislation in Pittsburgh that bans the declawing of cats.
“The Humane Society of the United States is thrilled to celebrate the work of our Humane Policy Volunteer Leaders. Exceptional leaders like Carol [Whaley] and Tara [Czekaj] partner with community stakeholders, identify animal welfare and animal legislation gaps, and work with local legislators to address those gaps. These efforts help to build an even stronger platform of protection for all animals,” said Kristen Tullo, HSUS PA State Director.
Winning the award, usually given to one or two volunteer policy leaders for their exceptional achievements in animal protection legislation, was a total surprise, according to Czekaj. She said that passing the ban was an accomplishment in itself, especially considering the harm declawing does to cats.
“The act of declawing is actually an amputation,” Czekaj said. “A lot of people don’t realize that. They think it’s a nail removal or trim.” Declawing a cat causes an immense amount of pain over the cat’s life and can lead to long-term issues such as infection, litter box aversion, biting, and aggression.
However, it’s not just cats that are protected by this legislation: It safeguards the limited resources of cat caretakers too. “Two of the top reasons cats are surrendered [to rescues and shelters]”, Czekaj added, “are litter box aversion and biting, so they come into shelters as essentially unadoptable.”
As part of her volunteer policy work, Czekaj often interfaces with local, state, and federal leaders. She praised Councilman Bobby Wilson for his compassion and understanding of the issue. In his October 2021 newsletter for The Northside Chronicle, Wilson wrote that he was introducing the legislation to ban declawing.
“This is a cruel procedure that causes our cats a lifetime of pain and discomfort,” wrote Wilson. “If this happened to one of us, it would be like cutting off each finger and toe at the last knuckle.“
As most cat owners well know, alternatives to declawing include capping a cat’s nails, regularly trimming them, and providing ample, appropriate scratching surfaces to cats.”
And as both Czekaj and Wilson have noted, Pittsburgh is the first city in Pennsylvania to ban declawing. While not present across the state, it is an increasingly popular policy among other states and cities. New York and Maryland are the only two states that ban the practice, while Austin, Texas; Denver, Colo.; and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley, Calif. also ban declawing, alongside St. Louis, Mo. and Madison, Wis. A number of European nations and Canadian provinces also have bans on declawing.
Czekaj’s work doesn’t end with cat declawing, however. When she’s not contacting legislators, there’s the Pittsburgh Prison Cat colony to care for at the former Western Penitentiary site. There used to be about 400 cats in the colony, Czekaj said, but over many years, Czekaj and other caretakers were able to get the population down to single digits by sending friendly cats to shelters and by TNVR (Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, and Release). Czekaj even has her own foster cats at home to care for that are waiting to be found by their forever families.
Czekaj said there’s more legislation in the works, and much more to be done to protect humans’ animal companions. There’s always work to be done, for example, at shelters and rescues, such as feeding and watering or scooping litter. Those interested in something a little different, though, can reach out to the Humane Policy Volunteer Leader program with HSUS at email@example.com.