Fur trapping is an extremely polarizing topic. For many people, it’s all black or all white. This post is an effort find a gray area — to develop a more nuanced view of trapping, people who trap, and people who oppose trapping. It’s in that gray zone where we can have meaningful discussion on the impact of trapping on animal suffering and on wildlife populations. So, rather than promote one extreme or the other, I invite you to explore the issues yourself, and decide what you think is the truth about trapping.
The Truth About Trapping
In addition to researching the topic, I interviewed 2 people who trap and 1 person who opposes trapping. I tried to present the topic in a way that fairly considers a variety of views, challenging or supporting them with actual studies, where available.
Scott M. Terry, homesteader at North Country Farmer began trapping at age 11 when he was charged with the task of ridding the family farm of raccoons who were killing the laying hens. He has trapped ever since. Beaver, fox, mink and muskrat have been among his target species. While living in Alaska, “marten were the bread and butter of our line”. The fur market and the abundance of species on his farm, he says, determine his targets. He currently traps mostly raccoons and coyotes, because they are common on his property. He believes that trapping helps reduce starvation and the incidence of contagious diseases like mange, by reducing the population of the trapped species. He uses foot hold and body gripping traps. He currently resides in New York, where he completed the state’s mandatory trapper education course and exam. Scott loves the outdoors and wildlife, and “trapping brings those two things together”. He loves learning the about “wildlife habits and customs”. Killing individual animals does not upset him. Rather, he thinks on a species level, and believes “managed fur bearers are healthier than un-managed populations”. He explains that he wants them to do well so that he can harvest fur for many years to come.
Krystyna Thomas of Spring Mountain Living in Michigan, began trapping recently, as a way to deal with wildlife depredation on her livestock. Skunks and weasels, in particular, have taken some of her chickens and eggs. She attended a trapping seminar to get the free trap given at the end of the class, but during the course developed a true interest in trapping. She explains, “We are running and farm and my choices are to either trap the animal stealing the food we raise, or let him have it.” She is still learning to process the pelts to use for warm winter clothing or home decor, but hopes to eventually sell some to fur traders. To her, trapping is a way to minimize loss, to generate income, to obtain fur for warm clothing and decorative items, and to revive a dying tradition.
Jennifer Lovett is a writer and illustrator with a masters degree in conservation biology. She keeps horses on her property in Vermont. She believes it is unethical for humans to use animals for food, clothing, and medical research, though she says that hunting and trapping “might be valid” for indigenous populations which do not have access to synthetic fabrics and a wide variety of vegetable foods. She equates trapping with “torture” and points out that Fish and Wildlife Departments rely on the honor system, because they cannot realistically monitor trappers. Animals might be left to die slow, painful deaths over a period of days. On a species level, Jennifer is concerned about non-target capture. In Vermont in 2013-2014, she explains, at least 22 American martens, an endangered species in the state, were trapped. At least 24 domestic dogs, several cats, owls, ravens, and a turtle were also trapped by devices meant for other species. She says that animal populations are naturally balanced by their food supply and natural fluctuations in predator/prey cycles. Finally, she believes that processing pelts involves more caustic chemicals and is more environmentally damaging than the manufacturing of synthetic fabrics.
Types of traps
To understand trapping, you must know something about the types of traps and how they work. There are 2 basic categories: those which kill and those which restrain. Note that not all traps mentioned are legal in all countries and in all states within the US. Inclusion of a wide variety of traps is meant to provide information about what has been, and what still is, in use in some places around the world. Consult the trapping regulations of your own region to find out what is legal.
Killing traps include the following. When/if these traps kill instantly, they are most humane because the animal suffers for a very brief period, or not at all, prior to death. One problem with kill traps is that they can kill or seriously injure any animal that wanders into it, not just the trapper’s target animal. That includes domestic animals, endangered animals, and other non-target animals. Here are the types of killing traps:
- Deadfall traps – use gravity to kill an animal by crushing its skull, back, or vital organs.
- Spring traps – use spring power to crush the neck or a torsion spring rotates 2 metal frames in a scissor like action.
- Snares – kill by asphyxiation.
- Drowning traps – hold semi-aquatic mammals under water until lack of oxygen induces death.
- Pitfall traps – pits with water at the bottom to drown animals which fall into them, usually small rodents.
Restraining traps do not kill the animal. Some cause injury, but minimally injured or uninjured non-traget animals can be released. Types of restraining traps include:
- Stopped neck snares – a noose prevented from closing beyond a certain point, so that the animal is not asphyxiated.
- Leghold snares – a noose catches the animal by the leg and restrains it.
- Leghold traps – may be padded or unpadded, and has 2 jaws that clamp together on the animal’s leg to restrain it. Modern padded traps are much less painful than old fashioned steel jaw traps.
- Box or cage traps – A door closes and contains the animal after it enters the cage in pursuit of bait.
- Pitfall traps – Bait attracts small mammals into a smooth sided container from which the animal cannot escape.
How much suffering do they cause?
Jennifer says traps are indiscriminate and cause great suffering. Scott says “a properly sized and placed trap does not cause very much pain”. Krystyna says “trapping can be cruel when it’s not done properly”. She admits that initially, trapping upset her a bit, but “in time, I got used to it”.
Now let’s see what some studies show.
Humaneness of trapping animals: an inconvenient truth
A quick search will show you that plenty of pro-trapping sites insist that trapping is humane, and many anti-trapping sites state with equal passion that it is cruel. Often such claims, whether pro or con, are not referenced at all, or poorly referenced with outdated sources. Some say that this or that veterinarian or wildlife biologist or organization proclaims trapping either humane or cruel, but that doesn’t mean much. It’s easy to find qualified individuals and organizations on one side or the other.
I did find a very detailed and relatively recent review of trapping methods within the US and Europe, in which the authors evaluate how well trapping methods meet the standards set by the International Organization for Standardization. The conclusion? “Many of the practices commonly used to trap mammals cannot be considered humane. Current legislation fails to ensure an acceptable level of welfare for a large number of captured animals.” See Mammal trapping: a review of animal welfare standards of killing and restraining traps. It’s a strong statement, but it is based on careful review of a large number of studies. A few take home points from the article:
- Some traps appear to do little damage, but survival of released non-target animals is still reduced. Damage due to neck snares is often not evident to the trapper. It can take days to appear, and can lead to tissue necrosis and death. Survival is reduced even for animals released from padded foothold traps. Perhaps even subtle limping compromises the animal’s ability to hunt effectively and to avoid predators.
- Death by drowning is touted as the humane way to trap aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals, because their natural instinct is to dive down into the water when frightened. However, death by drowning is a slow process. For example, the beaver can hold its breath under water for 15 minutes. After that, a trapped beaver begins to struggle and it takes another 9 minutes for it to die of hypoxia. Who, in good conscience, can call that humane?
- 28 of 38 studies on leghold traps show that they fail to meet accepted animal welfare standards. They are banned within the European Union and 80 countries around the world, but continue to be used in many states within the US.
- Box and cage traps are among the most humane types of trap, because non-target captures are uninjured and can be released. (But are they humane if the trapper neglects to check traps daily, leaving captures to suffer from exposure, thirst, and hunger?) These traps are large and difficult to transport, and often impractical for remote areas.
Impact on wildlife populations
Statements abound in pro-trapping literature that trappers are performing a useful service because they reduce wildlife populations. That’s a good thing, they say, because there is less competition for food and less spread of disease. Scott targets mostly raccoons and coyotes, and says if you don’t keep them “thinned down to a manageable level they end up with mange and rabies and that’s a terrible way to go.” Krystyna echoes Scott’s sentiment that trapping helps keep wildlife populations “under control”. Jennifer, on the other hand, says “ecosystems will be better balanced by the available food sources and by natural fluctuation of the predator/prey cycle…”
Who is right?
It depends. One thing it depends on is whether trapping really can reduce a population.
Populations of abundant habitat generalists, such as coyotes, and rapidly reproducing species, such as rabbits, are usually able to increase their reproductive rates enough to compensate even for heavy hunting and trapping pressure (6). This is why many years of coyote bounties resulting in hundreds of thousands of coyote killings, were ineffective. (11). However, trapping can temporarily reduce the local coyote population, and for this reason, some farmers find it helpful.
Populations of sparsely distributed, slowly reproducing species, such as martens and fishers, are extremely vulnerable to trapping. They can be, and have been, trapped to extirpation (7). But those less abundant species don’t usually cause problems for people, and when they do, the problem can be easily resolved with nonlethal measures to keep livestock and pets safe from predators. Trappers want these animals for their luxurious pelts. Killing them is not a service for wildlife conservation nor for the public good. On the contrary, wildlife managers are charged with the task of maintaining populations of these species so that trappers can sustainably harvest them.
Finally, the desirability of reducing a given species’s population is in the eye of the beholder. If you enjoy tracking, seeing or photographing it, or if you do not interact with it at all, you might welcome it in abundance. If it eats your crops, livestock, or pets, you might want its population reduced. If you want to increase the population of the wild plants or animals which prevail on its menu, you might want its population reduced.
Impact of trapping on spread of diseases
The National Trappers Association website states that trapping “will significantly decrease the severity and duration of outbreaks” of diseases such as “rabies, giardiasis, distemper, tularemia, and mange. Unfortunately, no references are provided. Trapping doesn’t select for sick individuals, so the only way it could reduce disease spread is through population reduction. But in the section above, we learned that trapping is not an effective method of reducing the populations abundant generalists, very species most prone to contagious diseases.
For rabies, in particular, scientists seem to agree that vaccination, not population reduction, is an effective method of controlling the spread of rabies (1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 10, 14, 15)
Even when a population can be reduced, it’s not clear that disease spread will halt. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says that mange, for example, cannot be controlled by population reduction if the disease is already widespread. If a disease is impacting only a small, isolated population, it would be theoretically possible to reduce spread by culling sick individuals, but traps do not select for them. They just as well capture healthy animals. The bottom line is that I’m not convinced that trapping is a useful tool for management of wildlife diseases.
While trapping does not generally reduce populations of problem animals, it can relieve the farmer of specific nuisance individuals. But reliance on lethal measures to control livestock predators (or garden predators, in the case of deer, ground hogs, and rabbits), is a poor strategy. The reason is that when an individual is killed, it creates a vacancy for another of the same species. The newcomer will eventually make a similar attempt on your livestock, and on and on the problem repeats. Disruption of social order of predator populations, immigration of other members of the species, and the unintentional killing of animals not responsible for livestock depredation mean the lethal control is often ineffective and wasteful (4).
Initial investment in a carefully planned, predator resistant set-up, on the other hand, can very effectively prevent livestock depredation with fencing, livestock guardian dogs, etc. See my article on Predator Proofing Your Chicken Coop and Run, for example.
That said, I don’t entirely oppose Krystyna’s and Scott’s trapping of predators because they make use of the animals they trap. It’s not my practice, and I don’t like it as a general strategy. Why? Because a set-up vulnerable to coyotes and raccoons is also vulnerable to rare predators and to domestic dogs, and killing or maiming them is undesirable in almost everyone’s view.
Trapping non-target animals
As mentioned above, traps are not 100% selective, and sometimes “non-target” animals are captured. These include domestic animals and protected wild species. It also includes any animal for which the trap is improperly designed or sized, because such an animal is more likely to suffer unintended injury. If captured by a live trap and uninjured, non-target animals can be released. But it’s important to know how likely a trap is to capture non-target animals, because some do suffer injury, and they can also suffer from exposure, dehydration, or predation while in the trap.
Over the years, trap designs have improved, and many are now more humane and more specific. But how specific are they? The National Trappers Association website states that foothold traps have a non-target capture rate of only 3%. However, no reference is provided, and I was unable to find a study to support that statement.
I did find a study comparing the Soft Catch foothold trap to a Taos Lightening Spring trap. 27 of the 59 captured animals were non-target (8). That’s almost a 50% non-target capture rate, quite a bit higher than 3% touted by the National Trappers Association.
Further, a report of trapping records and surveys of trappers in Idaho reveals disturbing information about non-target captures. For details, read Widespread Capture and Mortality of Non-Target Animals Related to Idaho Wolf Trapping 2011/2012 Briefly, two surveys were sent to trappers involved in wolf trapping using leghold traps and snares. They were asked to report non-target animals captured as a result of all their trapping activities, not just their wolf trapping activities. Summing the results of both surveys, we learn that the 439 survey respondents captured a total of 22 fishers, an imperiled species in Idaho. Fifteen of them died. And that is more than likely an underestimate, for not all Idaho trappers were surveyed, and not all of those surveyed submitted a response. Indeed, the Idaho Fish and Game Department states that “incidental trapping of fishers” may be an important cause of mortality for their endangered population.
Lastly, field biologists lament the fact that too many of their radio- or GPS- collared subjects are trapped (or hunted), making it difficult for them to gather sufficient data on the species (6, 13). From the trapper’s or hunter’s perspective, these are not “non-target” captures, but their deaths are certainly not in the interest of species conservation. How can we appropriately regulate hunting and trapping if scientists cannot get the data needed to understand the species?
Some states require a basic hunter education course, some require nothing other than purchase of license, and others require a trapper education course, such as the Kansas Furharvesters Education Class. This can be taken online, or as a one day class. Some states do not require the purchase of a trapping license for those hunting or trapping on their own land.
A 1-day class or no training at all might suffice when you are trapping for damage control on your own property. But trapping in the wilderness is very different. As a wildlife tracker and camera trapper, I am skeptical of claims that animals can be trapped with great specificity “if it’s done right”. I can tell you that it takes years of experience to become proficient at finding favored trails, hunting haunts, and hide outs of many of the fur bearers. And even then, it is often the case that other species use the same spots with frequency, increasing the chance of non-target capture. It’s ludicrous to think that a 1-day course can make someone a competent trapper who can keep the non-target capture rate close to 3%.
Difficulty monitoring trappers
Trapping laws are difficult if not impossible to enforce. Even if a trapper is using and locating his traps legally, there’s no way of knowing how often he checks them. Some trapping literature assures us that no one would leave his traps unchecked for more than a day, because economic reality forces him to capture as many animals as possible. To do so, he needs to re-set traps daily.
But not all trappers do it for profit. Some trap just for sport. And regardless of a trapper’s mission, not all states require that traps be checked daily, a surprising fact, if daily checking is so crucial for economic success. The Wyoming trapping laws, for example, require that leghold traps and other live traps be checked only every 72 hours. Snares and quick kill body gripping traps need only be checked weekly. So, humane organizations may well have a point that some animals are left for days to suffer from exposure, thirst, hunger, or predation.
Environmental impact of natural vs. synthetic
In 2009, the Humane Society produced a report on the environmental hazards of fur production, to counter the Fur Council of Canada’s 2007 ad campaign that “Fur is Green”. The HSUS report covers, among other things, the toxic and caustic chemicals of pelt processing, and the environmental cost of inadvertently killing rare species when trapping wildlife. See: Toxic Fur: The Impacts of Fur Production on the Environment and the Risks to Human Health.
What the HSUS report did not mention, however, is the fact that trapping, like hunting, requires the existence of wildlife habitat. When people use wildlife habitat directly, they are more likely to recognize its importance and protect it. Not to mention the fact that trapping and hunting licenses help pay for habitat conservation.
In contrast, the infrastructure needed to manufacture fabrics and clothing occupies space which could otherwise be wildlife habitat. So I think it’s hard to say which is environmentally superior, on balance, fur trapping or clothing manufacture.
Fur trapping is part of our heritage, and continuation of the tradition is an oft stated reason for trapping. It appears on many trapping websites, and both Krystyna and Scott mentioned it. There is something to be said for that. However, there are a great many traditions in human history which were eventually discarded for the better, once we understood the pain or suffering involved in the practice.
Of course trapping was once necessary for survival, and one could argue that it would be wise to keep this skill in our repertoire, should civilization crumble and trapping animals to make warm coats once again become a necessity. Well, okay, but because of the pain and suffering and potentially dangerous impact on threatened populations, perhaps trapping merits support only with stiffer regulations, some method of monitoring, and stronger trapper education to minimize suffering and impact.
Finally, it’s important to note that while the tradition of fur trapping has been fading, the basic skill of wildlife tracking has made a remarkable comeback in recent decades. The plethora of tracking books and workshops all over the country bear testimony to that. So does the CyberTracker Program, through which indigenous African hunters are employed as wildlife trackers assisting conservation efforts. Moreover, camera trapping, which requires excellent tracking skills and knowledge of the habits and habitats of wild animals, is also becoming quite popular. These endeavors breathe life into the otherwise declining tradition of fur trapping, in ways that can contribute to conservation and do not cause animals to suffer or die.
Conclusion: the truth about trapping wildlife
Pulling together all of the above, my own conclusion is that the only compelling reason to allow wildlife trapping is that some people want to do it. The reasons usually given by trappers don’t, in my opinion, hold much water.
- Wildlife agencies manage “fur bearers” to benefit trappers, while trapping is of questionable benefit to most, if not all, trapped species.
- Those who trap for profit are more likely driven by consumer demand for furs, not by research proven needs to control a population.
- Those who trap for sport are likely to choose target species that interest them, not necessarily abundant species or diseased populations.
- Individual animals most certainly suffer, and the amount of suffering depends partly on the activity of the trapper.
- Required trapper education is minimal.
- Trappers cannot be meaningfully monitored.
- Non-target capture is a serious concern. We will never know how often it happens, for we depend on voluntary report, and reporting is not in the interest of the trapper. Therefore, we cannot fully appreciate the degree to which trapping contributes to the decline of species, or to the failure of rare species to rebound. Nor will we never know how many non-target animals needlessly suffer or die.
All of that said, is the desire of some people to trap reason enough for its continuation? Maybe. It’s not possible to live without bringing death and suffering to animals. Even a vegan lifestyle requires food and resources which, when produced, destroy wildlife and their habitat. Animals most certainly suffer and die, even though we don’t observe it directly. Further, many homesteaders who kill animals for food and clothing live frugally and do not indulge in resource intensive luxuries. Therefore, a vegan lifestyle isn’t necessarily lower impact than a homesteader/trapper lifestyle. So I can’t entirely condemn trapping as Krystyna and Scott do it. However, I strongly support measures to improve trapper education, monitor trappers, and improve specificity and humaneness of traps.
All 3 interviewees have important views. I love Jennifer’s commitment to reducing animal suffering. I appreciate Krystyna’s need to convert livestock loss into financial gain. I identify with Scott’s love of nature and passion for learning about the habits of wild animals and would probably enjoy spending time with him in the backwoods tracking wildlife. However, if we were in any of my favorite haunts, I’d keep the hot spots a secret. I don’t want those animals killed and reduced to a commodity. To me they are individuals, living beings who experience joy and suffering, and who want to go about their daily business of finding food and mates, and raising young. I’m not convinced that killing them would benefit anything or anyone other than the trapper.
Where to you stand? What’s “the truth about trapping” in your view? Feel free to share your opinions…but please be respectful to others and their views.
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