A first-hand look at trapping

December 18, 2008

Few animal welfare issues are as emotive as trapping. For some people it is a barbaric relic of an unenlightened past that inflicts needless cruelty on wild animals.

For others especially in places such as the Canadian and American countryside it is a way of life passed down through generations as well as a welcome, seasonal supplement to rural incomes.

Photographer Jessica Rinaldi and I went out recently with an east Texas trapper to take a first-hand look at the industry. You can see our story, pegged to the U.S. recession and global economic downturn, here.

Traps come in different forms and sizes. Many are designed to kill instantly; others to restrain an animal until the trapper comes by to dispatch them with a bullet or a smack over the head with a blunt object.

Critics would be quick to point out that things don’t always go according to plan; some animals drown by mistake while some have been known to chew off a paw in a bid to escape from a snare or restraint. And simply restraining a wild animal is regarded by some activists as beyond the pale.

Most of the five beavers which Renfro recovered while I accompanied him appeared to have died relatively painless deaths. But a racoon did drown by mistake in one of his beaver sets that weekend. Renfro would be the first to admit that these things happen but insists that he does what he can to minimize suffering; groups such as the Humane Society of the United States maintain there is no way to really do this. And so the debate goes on.  

It is a debate that highlights broader issues related to animal welfare. Everyone has lines that they draw. Some people have nothing against wearing fur (an industry that relies on farmed animals for about 85 percent of its raw product, the rest from wild-trapped critters). For some it is appalling. Some hunters and anglers don’t like trapping for the same reasons they dislike dog or cock fighting, because they think it is cruel; other people would say hunting and fishing should also be banned. And there are folks out there who believe all exploitation of wildlife is unjust.

The tide is clearly turning against trapping, thanks in large part to well-orchestrated campaigns by animal welfare and rights groups. Fox-hunting with hounds was banned in Britain a few years ago; cock fighting is now banned all across America. Everyone regards dog-fighting as sadistic.

Renfro himself is an animal control officer who investigates dog fighting and most of his family’s many, many cats and dogs were adopted from shelters. He has his own animal welfare lines in the sand.

Then there is the issue of problem animals, as trapping is not just about the fur business. The beaver populations in east Texas and west Louisiana are up, in part because of the destruction of old-growth forests (second-growth trees are smaller and easier to chew on). They dam drainage ditches and farm ponds which then cause flooding. Racoons get into people’s homes and wreak havoc; coyotes prey on livestock. The nutria, a large aquatic rodent introduced from South America for its fur, is said to have weakened the levies at New Orleans because of its borrowing, thereby contributing to the city’s destruction when Katrina struck. It is all part of a seemingly endless cycle of animal/human conflict.

Animal welfare groups would say that there are humane ways of removing problem animals (for example cage traps which do not harm them). Others say sometimes there is no alternative but the trap’s steel jaws.

What do you think? Is trapping a legitimate activity and source of rural income or should it only be tolerated as a necessary evil to deal with problem animals? Or is it simply beyond the pale?

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