Saturday, Jan. 6 was a beautiful day in the Bitterroot Valley, and Kathyrn Socie and her two dogs were making the most of it. By 3 p.m. in the sun-soaked afternoon, Socie and her dogs Annie and Shilo had hiked a good distance up the Bear Creek drainage and had made it back to within a quarter-mile of the trailhead. Figuring that any danger posed to her dogs from moose or other wildlife using the drainage as winter range had passed, Socie unleashed her dogs and let them frolic in the snow at trail’s edge.
“I had assessed the situation as best as I could, and there was nothing in my mind that made me think ‘You need to call her back,’” says Socie of Annie, her 7-year-old German/Belgian Shepherd cross who was playing with a stick in the snow. “There was no sign of anything wrong.”
Socie has since replayed the ensuing events over in her mind repeatedly, but like all who endure tragic moments, understanding has been hard to come by. “It’s very symbolic to me that you can be completely in your world one second and just like that, it’s gone,” she says. “It was that dramatic.”
Annie had scampered up a hill bordering the trail, and almost immediately Socie heard a sound that she will never forget. “I thought it was a rabbit screaming,” she says. “It was a very high-pitched sound and it didn’t make any sense to me.”
As Socie made her way up the hill to investigate, she saw Annie struggling in the snow some 50 yards off the trail. “I immediately thought, ‘She’s caught in a leg trap,’” she says. “I ran up there and she was on the other side of a big tree and it was…pretty much the horror of my life.”
If it had been a leg trap–by far the most common trapping device used in “ground sets,” or traps laid on land–Socie most likely could have released her dog with no real harm done. But Annie had been caught in a body-gripping trap–called a “Conibear” trap, after its inventor–and the twin, spring-loaded rectangular jaws had snapped shut on Annie’s neck.
With Annie panicking and in obvious pain, Socie tried in vain to loosen the grip of the trap. “I’m just trying to help her and I said, ‘You know, sweetie, we’re going to get through this, I’m going to get you out of this,’” she recalls. “But after a while, the more I struggled with it, the more scared she got.”
When it became clear to Socie that she was not able to remove the trap, she ran through her options.
In short order, the trap made the decision for her. After just a few minutes in the trap, Annie’s breathing had become seriously labored. “She had probably this much space between the bars of the trap,” she says, indicating a gap of maybe three inches wide. “I just said, ‘All right, this is it. We’re gonna die.’ After I made that decision I calmed her down and lied down next to her to pet her and tell her how much I loved her and essentially waited for death to come, which didn’t take that much longer. I could not leave her.”
Socie estimates that the whole episode lasted 10 to 15 minutes, although to her “it felt like 3,000 years.” After composing herself as best she could, she left to get a friend to help her. “I had to get that thing off her,” she says. When she and her friend came back a short time later, Socie says that it took a good 20 minutes to get the trap off Annie’s body.
Given the considerable number of winter trappers and recreationists in western Montana, a certain amount of conflict between the two groups is inevitable. But the type of trap that killed Annie is a flagrant violation of both trapping regulations and ethics, according to Bill Thomas of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Missoula. “We would allege that the trap was illegally set, and not only that, completely unethical,” says Thomas.
After a Conibear trap killed a dog in the Kalispell area in 1997, a Trapping Advisory Committee, consisting of FWP officials, trappers and animal advocates, was formed to prevent such tragedies from recurring. As a result of the committee, Conibear ground sets larger than seven inches by seven inches were subjected to specific restrictions, a size that would prevent an object the size of a dog’s head from becoming snared. The trap that killed Annie, Thomas says, was 10 inches square and had no blocking mechanism.
Because the trap in question did not have identifying tags–another violation of trapping regulations–FWP officials have not yet found the offending trapper. Both Thomas and Doug Johnson, the Bitterroot game warden assigned to the case, fear that public knowledge of the incident may tip off the violator and result in an unsolved investigation. The fact that an identical set was found in the same area by Socie and Johnson a week after the incident indicates that the trapper is still active in the area.
But Socie feels that word-of-mouth about the incident has grown to the point where going public with her story is a moot point. And for Socie, who works at the Missoula Humane Society and considers herself a committed “dog person,” the best way to honor Annie’s memory is to make sure that people know the dangers of taking their dogs into trapping areas.
“My issue is protecting animals, making sure they’re safe and cared for,” she says. “In my book what it boils down to is this just can’t happen again.”
Anyone with information related to the trap found in Bear Creek can call the FWP hotline at 542-5500 or 1-800-TIP-MONT. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.