Every morning, Harriet Baker wakes up and thinks up ways to spread her gospel.
Baker, a semi-retired Beverly native who now lives in Quincy, has been on a decadelong crusade to stop cat owners from declawing their feline friends. She's written a book on the topic, "The Shocking Truth About Declawing Cats," has preached against the procedure at veterinarian conventions and even handed out fliers this spring in front of the Colonial Theatre in Boston. The performance that evening: the hit Broadway musical "Cats."
"A cat walks on its toes. You don't have to be a common-sense wizard to say it must be bad to cut their toes off," she said. "Some truths are self-evident. If they cut your fingers off, you wouldn't be able to so much as change a roll of toilet paper."
The declawing procedure involves permanently removing the claws and the front knuckle on each paw. The idea is to make it impossible for the cat to scratch up the furniture or to claw an unsuspecting child. But taking away a cat's instinctual defense mechanism causes emotional and physical harm and can lead to problems much worse than the occasional scratch mark on the couch, Baker said.
According to many veterinarians and animal professionals, Baker has a point.
"We do find far more behavioral problems (with declawed cats). They are more likely to be the type of cat that wouldn't be good around a child," says Laurie McCannon, the director of the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem. "Declawed cats are more likely to have anger issues. They can't scratch you, and they know it, so they will bite you."
The procedure is legal, but controversial.
"What is taught (to veterinarian students) along with the (declawing) procedure are the different viewpoints and what is ethical," said Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, the executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. "That's what we teach the students, not just that they need to know their own local laws, but to use their own judgment. They need to explore how they feel about (declawing) and make their own decision on what they want to do."
Arthur Freedman, a veterinarian at Hawthorne Animal Health Care in Salem, used to perform about one declawing procedure a week. But now he very rarely does it and calls the shift "an ethical decision."
"Medical-wise, it's like taking off the tip of your finger," he said. He will only do it "if the person is going to put the cat to sleep — in other words, as a last resort."
Freedman's not an exception. Many veterinarians on the North Shore are hesitant to declaw a cat, but there are some who will do anything, he said.
The American Veterinary Medical Association urges vets to tell pet owners to seek alternatives to declawing. There are rubber caps that can be placed on the claws, and most cats can be trained to only claw at scratching posts.
However, the AVMA maintains that "there is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities," according to its website.
And, sometimes declawing can be better than the alternative, Pappaioanou said. Some fed-up owners leave their cats "by the roadside to be hit by a car or at a shelter with a hundred other cats."
When asked how she knows declawing causes cats pain, Baker replies with a question: "How do you know another human being is in pain? ... You don't need to be a vet to figure that one out."
Baker describes herself as "combative and caring" by nature, and she thinks her small stature — she is less than 5 feet — makes her identify somewhat with her feline friends, whom she describes as "second-class citizens."
"People wouldn't do this (declawing) to dogs," she said.
She doesn't think people who declaw their cats are monsters, just very misinformed.
"I'm educating people," she said.