Pelting the trappers

An animal rights initiative aims to outlaw "body-gripping" traps.

JOHN WEY feels like a detective when he heads into the fields and woods around his hometown of Yakima to trap beavers, muskrats, and coyotes. He'll get to a river, say, looking for beaver, but it's not like he'll find a furry critter staring him in the face. He'll have to inspect the area for signs that most people wouldn't see: the muddy trails beavers leave as they scamper out of the water (which he will judge active or inactive depending on how wet they are) and so-called "scent mounds," softball-sized piles of debris on which beavers will deposit a scent so sweet it is used in perfume. If he finds such clues, he'll carefully place an underwater trap near the starting place of a trail, hoping to catch a beaver as it's climbing onto the shore.

"It's a way of life that's been carried on for centuries," says Wey, a practicing psychiatrist who traps for a hobby. "I think we still have some of the hunter-gatherer in us."

If so, you might say the backers of Initiative 713 believe it's time for a little evolution. They cast the use of traps as equivalent to nothing less than torture, all for what they see as the unsavory purpose of selling animal pelts to fur manufacturers. The initiative would largely ban what it terms "body-gripping traps," a variety of implements used by approximately 600 licensed trappers in this state to catch about a dozen species. In addition to beavers, muskrats, and coyotes, trappers target bobcats, fox, otters, raccoons, badger, marten, mink, nutria, skunks, and weasels.

Trappers counter that their hobby serves the important social purpose of helping to manage wildlife that may threaten people and property, at a time when suburban expansion into the wilderness has brought humans and animals closer together. Within that context, they defend their methods as being as humane as possible.

Of course, humaneness is in the eye of the beholder.

In a pleasantly shabby University District office that serves as campaign headquarters for the anti-trap initiative, Wayne Pacelle holds what is called a steel-jawed leghold trap. Pacelle is senior vice president of the Humane Society, the Washington DC-based animal rights organization that is the principal backer of the initiative here and a similar one in Oregon. In town for a few days to help the campaign, Pacelle demonstrates why he believes the trap is "barbaric."

The main parts of the trap are two arching prongs, which Pacelle pries open until they form a circle, revealing a small plate. In the woods, the plate lies in wait for an animal's foot. Pacelle taps the plate with a rolled up newspaper as a surrogate foot, and the jaws slam shut.

When it does so on an animal, Pacelle explains, blood pours, bones break, and tendons tear. Worse, the animal understandably tends to fight like hell to free itself, causing even more damage. And that agonizing struggle can go on for as long as 24 hours, the time period by which a new regulation requires trappers to check their traps.

"It's as if one of us had our hand slammed in the door of car," Pacelle says. "We'd want to pull our hand out immediately. But what if we couldn't get our hand out for 24 hours? That's a prescription for misery."

Adding further emotional potency to the campaign, traps have not infrequently inflicted that misery on pets, even some living in ordinary suburban neighborhoods well in from the wilderness. The campaign has compiled more than such 60 cases.

IN WASHINGTON, wildlife can be more than a mere nuisance. Coyote can attack livestock, such as sheep and cattle, as well as pets. Raccoons can tear up the insulation in homes and spread disease. Perhaps most prevalent of all, beavers create dams made of debris in waterways, which may cause flooding that can impair septic systems and wash out roads. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has received so many public safety complaints about cougars that earlier this month it agreed to start issuing permits that allow dog hunting for the animals.

Supporters emphasize that Initiative 713 would allow body-gripping traps to be used in certain situations—provided property owners obtain a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and show that they have already tried alternative methods. But it's clear initiative backers prefer more benign methods such as using a guard dog to protect sheep or taking common sense precautions with garbage so as not to attract raccoons.

It's all about "living with wildlife," Pacelle says. After all, he asserts, "It's the human population that is moving into the habitat of wild animals."

If initiative backers frown on killing animals when they pose a threat, obviously they're adamantly opposed to killing animals for the sole purpose of obtaining their fur. To underline the point, the initiative would ban the selling of pelts from trapped animals.

"In that situation, I wouldn't trap," says Mark Wagner, a trapper from Auburn. For one thing, he says, he couldn't recover his expenses. Currently, like most trappers, he traps free of charge for property owners experiencing a problem, knowing that he will make between $2 and $40 per pelt.

For another, he says, "it's totally contrary to any values I've been raised with as far as how we respect animals. To catch an animal and just throw it away if there's some practical use, whether it's food or revenues or cultural use, I can't justify that."

At the same time, Wagner says he wouldn't trap if he felt what he was doing was inhumane. Unlike the foothold trap focused on by initiative supporters, Wagner's preferred choice of trap, the Conibear, is intended to kill an animal instantly by breaking its neck. Nevertheless, it also would be banned under I-713; initiative backers say that the Conibear doesn't always work effectively. What's more, Wagner points out that the state has already changed its regulations to require less damaging models of the foothold trap. One, for instance, has rubber padding on its prongs.

But those regulations affect trapping on public lands only, not on private property; the state reasons that a landowner facing an immediate threat should be allowed to use his or her trap of choice. And so even though the state is likely to follow the recommendations of a nationwide testing program currently underway to determine the most humane and effective models of traps, it is unclear how wide a mandate any new regulations would have.

Still, Wagner has an ethic of trapping he feels he can be proud of. A boyish man in his early 40s who suggests meeting in a health food restaurant next to an REI outlet in Federal Way, he comes off less like an animal terrorist than as your typical outdoorsy Northwesterner. He has, in fact, always looked for outdoor jobs, whether by working at local ski areas or on fishing boats in the Bering Sea. He supports himself with real estate investments now, but sees trapping as his connection to nature. In the winters of trapping season, he leaves home before light, often donning snowshoes to head into backcountry.

"With trapping I have a commitment," he says. "I have to check traps daily, whether it's snowing or raining. I see nature in all its elements." Wagner stops himself, self-aware enough to realize how he might sound. "I don't expect people to say, 'yea, we should allow trapping so Mark Wagner can experience nature in his own little way.' What I think people should consider are the practical implications."

If the initiative passes, property owners would have to pay someone to deal with about 5,000 problem animals a year and might have to go through a possibly cumbersome and time-consuming permitting process. Yet, it's doubtful whether trapping's effectiveness in dealing with those animals justifies the sport as a whole. Only about 20 percent of animals caught during the last trapping season caused some form of damage, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Tom Keegan, a wildlife biologist who oversees management of fur-bearing animals for the department, reflects on the philosophy behind trapping in this country. The species being trapped are not endangered, he says. If allowed to proliferate without restraint, a natural kind of population control would ensue in which too many animals would compete for too few resources and prey upon each other. "There is a management goal," Keegan says, "of removing some of the animals who would have naturally been taken by predators, or who would have died of other causes, and using them for human beings"— using them, he adds, "for another part of the system."

In this worldview, animals are not merely warm and fuzzy but a "renewable natural resource," like timber. On this point, trappers and animal rights activists will never agree.

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