11 min read

Cruel and archaic: Why more than four million animals die in leghold traps every year

<p> Photo: Stopcougartrapping.org </p>

Meet Jetta.

Photo: Terry Dubois

Photo: Terry Dubois

For most of her 13 years of life she's helped on search and rescue missions throughout the state of New Mexico. However, in 2014, while hiking on a well-traversed trail, Jetta was suddenly seized by a leghold trap. It clung so tightly to her leg that it took four humans to pry it open and set her free.

Most other animals aren't so lucky.

For nearly 100 years, biologists, naturalists and even sport hunters have understood the need for wildlife conservation. The old-fashioned and mistaken belief that man is in competition with nature has led to extinction or near-annihilation of many animal species. Now, however, most understand that all animals play an important role in the ecosystem, and we need to stop reckless harassment and thoughtless killing of wild animals.

So why then, do we, as a society, tolerate the use of leghold traps, primitive implements designed to indiscriminately cause extreme suffering, physical damage and death to millions of wild animals every year?

Animals caught in traps suffer for hours or even days in pain, with no food, water or hope. This is the way they spend their last hours on earth. Photo: Stopcougartrapping.org Though utilized much earlier, leghold traps were described in Western texts as early 16th century C.E. The technology hasn't advanced much since then. Basic "modern" leghold trap models are square, round or oval, but they all have one thing in common-they don't discriminate. Sure, you can set a leghold trap for a fox or a cougar, but what you'll catch is anyone's guess – a bird, a dog or even a child.

Here's how it works: Trappers-who aim to capture and kill furbearing animals for profit or sport-place a piece of scented material on a weighted pan nestled between a set of spring-loaded jaw-like bars. When the animal reaches in for the bait with its paw or head, the springs snap up, and the jaws dig into the animal's skin and bone.

Now the animal is trapped and waits for hours, or even days, with the trap gnawing into his leg. Every movement is excruciating. He's vulnerable to an attack from another animal and exposed to the elements. No water, no food, no shelter.

No hope.

Some cases report animals chewing through their own legs to escape. With no other alternative in sight, they choose to painfully self-amputate in the name of freedom.

This horrific scene is why leghold traps have been banned or severely restricted by more than 80 countries, including the entire European Union, and eight U.S. states. Those U.S. states that do allow trapping set their own regulations on the practice, so the law varies depending on jurisdiction. Some require permits and reporting, while others don't. Some dictate how often a trap must be checked (a typical time requirement is every 48 hours) so a captured animal can be killed by the person checking the trap, but how a state agency enforces this rule is anyone's guess. Some animals, like deer, can die in a trap within 24 hours. Almost all states specify the types of animals one can legally trap.

That last little aspect-that traps can be set for only certain species-is a huge problem. Unlike hunters with eyes and ears, leghold traps can't tell the difference among a family cat, an endangered animal or a raccoon. Traps don't know a bald eagle from a bear. Once the center pan is triggered, those thick jaws clamp down tightly on the closest arm, leg or head.

Despite the name "leghold," animals caught in these traps, such as this bald eagle in Alaska, often find their entire bodies clamped to the ground, immobile and helpless. Photo: Kathleen Adair

Despite the name "leghold," animals caught in these traps, such as this bald eagle in Alaska, often find their entire bodies clamped to the ground, immobile and helpless. | Photo: Kathleen Adair

Trapping can be especially tragic when "non-target" animals are caught. Four dogs were found baking in the sun in the South Dakota Badlands-no shade, food or water nearby. It only took a moment for the worker who found them to realize they were all dead, having been strapped to the ground for days by leghold traps. Some animals survive but are permanently mutilated. In New Mexico, a dog found on the side of the road had been hobbling on the bare bone of his back legs for weeks. His flesh had been ripped away by leghold traps.

Traps are prevalent in New Mexico, even though a 2015 poll shows New Mexican voters oppose the practice by a margin of 3 to 1. Despite public sentiment, the corporate agriculture and livestock industry has declared war on wildlife. Even though native predators are responsible for less than one percent of cattle deaths, this industry posits that the loss of even a single livestock animal (and, more specifically, the profit therein) justifies the unregulated slaughter of entire species.

In fact, New Mexico is quickly becoming the epicenter for the fight against animal trapping. In August 2015 the state Game Commission unanimously revoked the requirement for trapping permits for cougars-New Mexico's native big cat species-on private land, despite massive outcry from the public. Without a permitting system, trapping regulations will become even more difficult to enforce and may result in the unmonitored obliteration of a species important to New Mexico's ecosystem. No other state allows this kind of unregulated trapping of a game species.

In addition, beginning in 2016 New Mexico will allow traps on 9 million acres of state trust lands, often used by outdoor recreationists. Extraordinarily disturbing is the lack of scientific evidence to back up these expanded regulations. The Department of Game and Fish offered no biological or ecological data that justifies the increase in killing methods. Without scientific reasoning, the state agency is simply declaring war on nature, and New Mexico isn't alone in this battle. Similar scenarios are playing out across the U.S., led by niche and minority interests that appear to be attempting to undo every wildlife conservation achievement of the 20th Century.

The human race cannot become so blinded by our need to dominate that we often lose sight of the long-term effects of our actions. The way we treat animals reflects the way we treat each other. Science has shown us time and time again that there is a connection. We believe that cruel trapping should be stopped nationwide. It's inhumane. It's cruel. It's indiscriminate. The question is: how many more lives must be caught in traps before lawmakers will take action?

To learn more about Animal Protection of New Mexico visit apnm.org.