Last month, a stunning bald eagle was released back into the wild, eagerly spreading her 6-foot wingspan as she raced back into nature. Found caught in a leghold trap after she dove in for the bait, the eagle was rehabilitated and eventually released by the Montana Raptor Conservation Center.
She was one of the lucky ones. Each year millions of animals, including protected species like bald eagles, are caught in traps where they often wait days for trappers to return and kill them, slowly starving in a perpetual state of panic, pain and fear.
Warning: Disturbing content
"It's an extended, drawn-out misery," John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for the Humane Society of the United States, told The Dodo. "I know of no other practice involving wildlife or taking of wildlife that involves such extensive suffering."
And while killing a bald eagle comes with a felony penalty of up to $250,000 or two years in jail, no one's held accountable for all the eagles who are simply thrown into the woods when they're killed by the indiscriminate traps. Yet a new bill is trying to sneak even more of these traps onto public lands — which would pose dangers to wildlife as well as domestic animals.
What is trapping?
"Traps are more like landmines for wildlife," Goodwin said. "They are completely non-selective and they can kill or injure whatever animal steps in these traps. That includes people's pets, and that can and does include endangered species."
Each year, at least 4 million animals are intentionally caught in traps in the U.S. alone, with countless more accidental catches killed and left in the woods if they're not a species the trapper wanted — or is legally allowed to take.
The Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act, introduced earlier this year, could make that number even higher. The bill would open all U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands to hunting unless officials decided to close them off — currently, these lands are closed unless officials can prove that hunting is compatible with other uses of the land.
But the bigger danger is that, quietly tucked into the bill, hunting is defined to include trapping. "If you don't look at the definition … you would not know that it involves trapping," Goodwin said. "A lot of people on Capitol Hill had no idea."
The act would potentially open hundreds of millions of acres of public lands to trapping and allow countless thousands more animals to die each year by the antiquated method.
"There's no hunt involved," Goodwin said. "People set the traps, they leave, they come back the next day and there's an injured or maimed animal waiting to be killed."
A terrible death
It's not an easy way for an animal to go; even the rare few who make it to wildlife rescues with no apparent injuries usually succumb to constriction damage. "Even if the animal is functioning and it's eating the limb is dying," Sarah Glesner, animal care supervisor for Wildwoods, a Duluth, Minnesota–based wildlife rescue, told The Dodo.
Wildwoods sees dozens of animals each year who have been escaped from traps — often with the metal jaws still hanging on them. Not one victim of leghold traps the rescue has treated has survived.
Animals will also come in with abrasions from rubbing against the traps and damaged mouths from trying to gnaw the traps off — or their own limbs. "They'll break teeth off, they'll have blood in their mouth, they'll have cuts on their tongues," she explained. "[And] some people say, oh no, that's a myth, they won't chew their limbs off. But it's true … we've seen squirrels do this, racoons do this."
In one recent case, a scared raccoon was found caught in an illegally set trap that Glesner calls a "marshmallow trap," which consists of a small cylindrical trap with a marshmallow stuffed inside. "It's specially designed to catch raccoons because they're so curious about what's in that hole that they can't really help themselves," she said.
Like so many others, this little racoon reached in for the marshmallow, and the trap clamped around her hand. Though she was brought to Wildwoods, "her little hand was cold," Glesner said, and the damage was so bad she had to be put down.
It's against the law for a person to save an animal from a legally placed trap, so the only animals who escape are the rare few who manage to pull the anchor line loose and run off with the trap still clamped on them. Wildwoods fields frequent calls from people who've spotted trapped or injured animals, but with limited rescue resources and difficult-to-catch animals like coyotes or foxes, most of them can't be saved.
"They just, as animals do, go into a quiet place to die," Glesner said.
The danger for pets
But it's not just wildlife that's in danger. Because the traps are set up in areas frequented by people and their pets, and because scent traps designed to appeal to foxes or coyotes are just as irresistible to dogs, it's becoming increasingly common for domestic animals to stumble into leghold or snare traps.
And the results are often devastating. In February, a stray dog was found on a country road in New Mexico — most of his back legs were gone, and he was hobbling along on the exposed bones of his stumps. Fortunately, the dog, named Cub by rescuers, made a miraculous recovery and is now happily living with a loving family.
But not all animals are so lucky — if you can call it that. In December, one Wyoming family lost their three St. Bernards to traps over a few days. Their first dog went missing — he was later found dead in a trap — and while searching for him, the family's children watched their two other dogs stumble into snare traps and die before their eyes.
There's still hope
While most hunting operates under the banner of conservation, with set state or federal limits on the number and type of animals that can be taken, trapping operates relatively untouched by the law.
"Trapping is the outlier," Goodwin said. "There are no regulations in regards to conservation or cruelty … For the most part you just go out there and kill however many animals you want."
Of course, the Sportsmen's Act is backed by "powerful" interest groups, Goodwin said, such as the National Rifle Association. But others on Capitol Hill are starting to wake up to the cruel realities of trapping.
While not directly related to the bill, last month Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) introduced the Refuge From Cruel Trapping Act, which would ban trapping in national wildlife refuges.
Goodwin hopes the Sportsmen's Act won't pass, or that the sponsors will be pressured into dropping the trapping clause, but recognizes that a serious push from members of the public and other congressmen will be needed to stop it.
"That will only happen if animal advocates raise their voice," he said.
Ask your legislators to oppose the bill by clicking here.