By George Wuerthner
Years ago I was backpacking in Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness with my friend, Rod, and his Malamute, Jake. Like most dogs, Jake was happily running ahead of us investigating this and that. Suddenly Jake let out a sharp cry and began yipping from someplace up ahead in the brush. We rushed to him to find with his leg snared in a giant leg-hold bear trap set by a deer carcass. This trap was the size of a car tire. We desperately tried to free him from the trap, but even with the two of us trying to open the contraption, the springs were just too stiff and we couldn’t get Jake’s leg out. So Rod and I took turns carrying 100 pound Jake on our shoulders, along with the heavy trap plus our backpacks, to our car so we could rush him to a vet.
The vet had to get a special trap opener to compress the springs so we could open the jaws enough to remove Jake’s leg. Jake was lucky. Because the trap’s teeth were so large, Jake’s leg was caught wedged between the teeth instead of having it go through his leg. He fully recovered from the experience. But most pets and nearly all wildlife are not so lucky.
There was no sign indicating the presence of the trap, nor any other effort to warn people of the lurking danger. Had either one of us stepped into the track, we might have suffered serious damage. Unfortunately the trapping of wild animals is a legal activity in all of the United States. In fact, I am not aware of a single state “wildlife” agency that doesn’t promote trapping, instead of questioning its legitimacy. It’s amazing to me that in this day and age we still allow this barbaric activity to be justified in the name of “sport”. Leg-hold traps and snares are particularly treacherous devices. Animals caught in such traps suffer pain, exposure to weather, dehydration and often a long painful death. Snares are even more gruesome with animals slowly strangling to death as the wire noose tightens. How is it that cock and dogfights are now illegal and yet we permit state wildlife agencies to sanction an equally cruel activity?
The statistics are astounding. More than 4 million animals are trapped for “fun” each year, many enduring immense suffering in the process. Millions more are trapped as “nuisances” or die as “non-target” animals. For example more than 700 black bear are snagged each year in Oregon as “nuisance” animals by timber companies (because in the spring bears eat the inner cambium layer of trees).
Only a few states have banned the use of leg-hold traps for sport trapping and then usually only through citizen initiative process. Yet 90 countries around the world have banned these traps and the entire European Union has banned these contraptions. Most trapping targets “fur bearer” animals like lynx, musk rat, beaver, marten, fisher, river otter, weasel, mink, bobcat, red fox, coyote, and bears, and in some states like Idaho and Alaska, trappers also take wolves. Most of these animals are important predators in their own right, and help to promote healthier ecosystems in many, many ways from the way that wolves reduce the negative impact of large herbivores like elk to reduction of rodent populations by coyotes. Thus indiscriminate trapping disrupts natural ecological processes, often in ways we don’t appreciate.
And while most trappers might scoff at the idea, their “enjoyment” of trapping comes at the expense of the pleasure of other wildlife lovers who might rather see a red fox scampering across a field, a river otter swimming in a stream or hear a coyote howling in the night than see it’s skinned and fur used for frivolous purposes like clothing—we have other alternatives to fur.
The major arguments used by trappers to defend the legitimacy of their “sport” can largely be refuted. One argument is that trapping promotes family time, learning about nature and gets people outdoors. However, there are many other ways to spend time together as a family, learn about nature or to get outdoors that does not involve traumatizing animals.
Another argument is that if we don’t kill the animals, they will overpopulate and die of starvation and/or disease. If you believe this line of self-justification, trappers are really acting out of a sense of mission, responsibility and kindness by killing animals to save them from a greater misery. Beyond the obvious rationalization of such assertions, a problem with this logic that not all animals, or animals in all places are in jeopardy of overpopulation. And trapping doesn’t necessarily remove the animals that are most likely to die from these natural events.
A third justification often heard in trapping circles and from state wildlife agencies, is trapping helps to remove “problem” animals—beaver that clog up culverts or coyotes preying on livestock. There are numerous issues with this line of reasoning. The first is that trapping, as practiced by most “sport” trappers, is indiscriminate. They are not taking the specific animals that may be “problematic”. Most trapping is random, killing any animal unfortunate enough to wander into a trap.
Beyond that, because agencies like to promote trapping (some like Wildlife Services entire existence is dependent upon having “problem” animals to kill) there is little incentive to educate or even regulate the public so that conflicts are not created in the first place. In many cases, the “problem” is “problem humans”. So livestock producers who fail to adequately monitor their animals and utilize guard animals along with lambing/calving sheds, have more issues with coyotes. Honey producers who do not use electric fences around their beehives have issues with bears. And so on.
Not every instance can be alleviated by some creative action by humans, but in most case we don’t even try because neither the government wildlife agencies nor the trappers want solutions other than trapping and the broader excuse for trapping that they believe these so called “problems” justify. In those instances, where changing human behavior fails to reduce conflicts, we may have no choice but to rely upon the surgical removal of “specific” animals, not the wholesale killing of any animal that happens to have a fur coat. And such removal should be done in the most humane way possible.