Releasing the grip

A new non-profit takes aim at trapping


For a few harrowing minutes in July 2005, Huck knew exactly what it felt like to be in something else’s jaws. The 100-pound golden retriever/ Newfoundland mix was out for a run on National Forest land near the Clearwater River when his sprint was brought to a painful halt just 20 feet from the car.

“Huck was right beside me and all of the sudden he wasn’t,” recalls Kara McMahon, Huck’s human. “He let out a huge crying-for-help kind of yelp…and I turned around and he was just lying there on the ground.”

Huck had unwittingly stepped into a leghold trap intended to grab a furbearing critter of a different sort. Luckily, the trap nabbed only the first few inches of Huck’s hind paw, and Kara, who had never seen a trap before, was finally able to pry the jaws open enough for Huck to slip out. Ever since, Huck has walked with a limp.

It’s incidents like these that a new Missoula-based nonprofit organization called Footloose Montana is hoping to prevent.

“Our mission is to make public lands in Montana trap-free and safe for pets, wildlife and people,” says Anja Heister, Footloose president. “Why should I have to fear for the life of my dogs when I go recreate on public lands?”

The group is working to raise $20,000 to commission a poll examining Montanans’ attitudes towards trapping. Heister says the organization has already raised $15,000 and plans are underway to launch a 2008 ballot initiative campaign aimed at banning the practice. Eight states, including Arizona, Colorado, California and Washington, have already done so.

In the meantime, Footloose Montana is hosting “pet rescue workshops” to teach attendees how various traps work, and how to release them. The group is also gathering information on known traps and trap lines, which Heister plans to publish on the group’s website so recreational hikers will know which areas aren’t safe for off-leash pets.

The Montana Trappers Associa-tion’s Fran Buell, asked for comment,  says any effort to ban trapping would be vigorously opposed by the state’s trappers, as well as by organizations that employ trappers for predator control. Even so, she acknowledges, “We all feel badly when a non-target animal is caught. We feel badly for the owner because we know there’s a bond there.”

But while Heister knows trappers don’t set out to ensnare dogs and cats, she says the indiscriminate nature of leghold, Conibear and snare traps too often leads to tragic incidents involving family pets, deer fawns, elk calves, and even endangered species.

Trappers are only required to report the capture of endangered or threatened wildlife, such as the threatened Canada lynx, so no complete record of non-targeted species captures exists. According to Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) officials, trappers reported four lynx captures over the last five years, with at least one of those animals dying in the trap. The other three were reportedly released.

Currently in Montana, pet owners have no legal recourse if their dog or cat is killed or injured by a legally set trap, and those traps could be almost anywhere on public land. Under existing regulations, traps can be set as close as 30 feet from the centerline of any road or public trail, and trappers have to walk only 300 feet from a trailhead before placing them. A push last summer to lengthen the distance between trailheads and traps from 100 feet to 1,000 feet was met with fierce resistance from the state’s trapping community. According to the minutes of the August 2006 FWP Commission meeting, some trappers who testified against the proposed 1,000-foot setback expressed little sympathy for dogs that might end up in their traps. Andy Wesier of the Montana Trapper’s Association stated, “If a dog gets in my trap 100 feet off the trailhead, he was 100 feet out of control, and it’s [the dog owner’s] fault and not mine.” Trapper Steve Lasar seconded that sentiment, saying, “If a dog is out of control, it is justifiable that it gets caught in a trap.”

Ultimately the commission settled on a 300-foot setback, a distance Heister and other anti-trapping advocates say is far too short.

Filip Panusz is well aware of the dangers posed by traps near trailheads. Panusz had just set off on a hike in the Valley of the Moon near Rock Creek last March when he heard a loud snap. Panusz rushed to the edge of the creek and found his border collie mix, Cupcake, strangling in the jaws of a powerful Conibear trap, probably set there to catch a beaver. In theory, Conibear traps are designed to snap down on an animal’s neck, breaking the spine immediately. In some cases the trap doesn’t strike true and the animal can linger in the trap for minutes or even days before suffocating, bleeding or starving to death.

Panusz tried desperately to pull the Conibear’s jaws off his pet’s neck, but he couldn’t figure out how the device worked. Standing waist deep in icy water, Panusz screamed for help as his dog’s body went limp in his arms.

Recalling that day months later, Panusz is still visibly shaken. He says he’s gone to pet rescue workshops sponsored by Footloose Montana and learned how to open a Conibear trap, but he’s uncertain even that knowledge would actually help him save a trapped animal.

“The truth is it probably took my dog 15 seconds to lose consciousness and he was probably gone in less than a minute,” Panusz says. “And if I’m in shock and I’m panicking, I’m not sure I would be able to do it in time.”

Panusz, who studied philosophy and wildlife biology at the University of Montana, says he’s reluctant to crusade against trapping. But if a ban on the practice makes it onto the ballot in 2008, he says, he’ll vote “yes.”


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