The Hidden Danger Threatening Our Dogs

Trapping of bobcats, coyotes, and other fur-bearing animals is on the rise—with man’s best friend the collateral damage.

A single trapper will set an average of 39 traps—and they don't always catch the intended creature.     Photo: Hannah McCaughey

Earlier this year, Terry Dubois, an elementary school reading coach and member of the Los Alamos Mountain Canine Corps, a search-and-rescue outfit in northern New Mexico, went hiking with a few friends and four dogs. They were on U.S. Forest Service land, three miles from town and on a well-established trail that leads to some Native American ruins, when her 12-year-old heeler, Jetta, suddenly began shrieking.

“It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” says Dubois. “She was screaming and crying, and I hardly recognized it was her.”

The jaws of a foothold trap, baited with bobcat urine, had snapped shut on Jetta’s right front leg. The group scrambled to try and release her.

“By some miracle, one of my friends had just watched a video that showed how to open similar traps,” says Dubois. “It was not intuitive.”

After being freed, Jetta was limping a little, but there was no permanent damage. Other pets have been less fortunate. In January, a 12-year-old Idaho boy watched as his dog, Loyal, was killed in a trap, despite his parents’ efforts to save her. In Maine, last October, an 84-year-old man was forced to shoot his hunting beagle after it became ensnared, panicked, and latched onto him as he was trying to free it. In Minnesota, in November 2012, a seven-month-old border collie on a walk with its owners set off a Conibear trap, designed to clamp down with enough force to break an animal’s neck. It was the family’s second dog killed by such a trap.

In the past two years, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incidents of dogs and cats getting caught in traps set to snare bobcats, coyotes, and other fur-bearing animals. These nontarget species, in trapping lingo, have become unintended victims in a nationwide resurgence of something most people assumed had gone the way of the coonskin hat. Thanks to demand in China and Russia for fur-trimmed coats, a coyote pelt that sold for roughly $7 a decade ago now goes for $50. Muskrat is at $11, up from $2. Highly coveted bobcat pelts can fetch up to $2,100 at auction. Overall, the U.S. fur trade is now a $15 billion industry, up 45 percent since 2004.

That means there are thousands of new trappers and perhaps tens of thousands of additional traps in the field. In Minnesota, annual trapping licenses now top 10,000, nearly double the number in 2000. How much additional risk that represents for domestic animals is difficult to quantify, since there is no comprehensive database tracking incidents. But trappers commonly set two or three dozen traps each. Many are required by their state’s licensing laws to take safety courses, which also cover how close to trails the traps can be placed, but compliance varies. The trap that caught Jetta was set just inches from the trail, which is illegal in New Mexico. (Traps there must be placed 25 yards from foot traffic.) And it didn’t have the trapper’s ID number on it, another requirement.

A growing number of angry pet owners like Dubois are looking to outlaw trapping for good. The practice is already tightly restricted in four states—California, Washington, Arizona, and Colorado—but laws there have existed for a decade or more. New efforts tend to seek partial bans. In New Hampshire, a bill is making its way through the legislature that would increase penalties on violations that result in a dog’s death. In New Mexico, anti-trapping advocates hope to pass a bill next year that would ban the practice on public lands.

“Our goal is a national ban,” says Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director at Wild-Earth Guardians, a conservation nonprofit. “But it’s difficult, because people don’t realize that these indiscriminately cruel devices are still widely used.”

Another challenge is anti-government and landowner groups, which see any form of regulation as an infringement on their rights. “People use trapping bans as a metaphor for overreach,” says Cotton. “The debate becomes a platform for all sorts of folks.” The nonprofit Footloose Montana gave up on a fall ballot proposal because of pushback from several state agencies. A similar effort was abandoned in Oregon. Some advocates have had more success at the local level—Dubois and Trap Free New Mexico convinced Los Alamos County to pass a resolution against trapping in March—but even that can be an uphill battle.

For now, dog owners have few options but to be wary while on public land. As for Dubois, Jetta’s trapping turned out to be a life-changing event. “Every day I try to raise awareness. But I’m left with this feeling of paranoia and powerlessness,” she says, “and all for someone’s fancy coat.”

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