The Leghold Trap
Every year some 10 million animals are trapped in the wild for their fur, caught by leghold traps, body grip traps (Conibear trap) and wire snares. As the leghold trap is the most common type of trap (around 75% of the total 'wild harvest' in both Canada and USA is caught by leghold traps - [1,p9]) this report mainly concentrates on that device.
88 countries have banned the use of the leghold trap because of its cruelty. Banned in England and Wales since 1958 the leghold trap is a barbaric device. These steel traps work by clamping the animals' leg, biting deep into the flesh. The victims may have to wait a long time, growing weaker and weaker through pain and attempts to escape, before the trapper returns to kill them. Bullets are not used to kill, as this would damage the pelt. Instead, the animal will be clubbed or suffocated. Many chew their legs off in a vain attempt to escape the suffering. In their struggle they will cause other injuries, such as broken bones and teeth. These traps have remained largely unchanged for more than a hundred years. In 1863 Charles Darwin said of them: "It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the suffering thus endured from fear, from acute pain, maddened by thirst, and by vain attempts to escape."
There have been plenty of studies into the effect of leghold traps, and all reveal the cruelty inherent in this device. The two metal jaws of the trap slam shut on the animals paw when they stand on it. Although the initial impact of the trap causes injury it is the attempts to escape the trap that cause major damage. The trapped animal, in desperate attempts to escape, will rip her flesh, break bones, sever muscles and tendons, knock out teeth as she bites the trap, even chew off the trapped limb.
The gnawing off of a limb is so common that it has been given the term 'wringing off' by trappers. It is estimated that up to one in every four trapped animals escapes by chewing off her own foot .
Here are the results of just a few of the studies into leghold traps :
- A study in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge over a 4 year period found that 27.6% of mink, 24% of racoon, and 26% of trapped fox would bite off their limbs in hopes of surviving. Most probably died of blood loss, infection, and inability to hunt with an amputated leg;
- A 1980 study found that 37% of racoons mutilated themselves when caught in a leghold trap;
- A Swedish trapping campaign, conducted shortly before leghold traps were banned, found that of 645 trapped foxes 514 were seriously injured. Over 200 of the foxes had knocked out teeth as they bit the trap. Some of the foxes had knocked out 18 teeth - consider how desperate they must have been to escape that trap.
Each type of leghold trap is designed for a specific species or size of animal. But of course the trap cannot distinguish between animals and can cause even more horrific injuries. Traps are designed to restrain an animal until the trapper returns, rather than kill her outright. Laws vary in different areas. In some states of the USA traps should be checked every 36 hours, but of course not everyone takes notice of that. In some areas, such as Canada or Alaska, it may be open-ended due to the vastness. One former trapper writes: "In the far north, trappers rarely have to kill captured animals because of the days required to check traplines. Most animals are either frozen to death or die from a combination of freezing and starvation." [4,p21] It's not just trap injuries, thirst, starvation or hypothermia that can kill the animal. Some are even eaten by predators who happen to stumble across an 'easy meal'.
If the animal is still alive when the trapper returns she/he will want to kill the animal in a way that does not damage the pelt. As such bullets are rarely used. Common methods include beating the animal to death or crushing her by stamping on her chest. A popular book on trapping is published by the California Department of Fish and Game and is called 'Get Set to Trap'. It gives helpful advice on killing trapped animals: "It is highly recommended that the animal be struck two times, once to render it unconscious and again to render it dead or comatose. To ensure death pin the head with one foot and stand on the chest ... with the other foot for several minutes. ... To be sure the furbearer is dead, touch the eye or mouth of the animal with the striking tool and watch for any reaction." [4,p82]
In 1976 wildlife researcher Daniel Kelly gave evidence to a Congressional Testimony on trapping. His evidence is heart breaking to read and reveals the true callousness of trapping. Kelly reported on the death of a coyote that had both front legs caught in traps and was "exhausted after four days of fighting the unyielding steel ... The trapper approached, a five-foot birch club in hand. The coyote struggled frantically against the traps, pulling one leg loose and leaving the lifeless paw in the trap. The trapper poked at the coyote.
... Suddenly the club smashed across the coyote's nose and slammed him to the ground. But the blow was not delivered with precision. Almost instantly he was in a semi-crouch; blood spurting from the nose, eyes dazed. Again the club fell. The trapper ... grabbed the stunned coyote by the hind legs, stretching the animal full length while planting his foot heavily on its neck. The other foot delivered a series of thumping blows to the coyote's chest expelling hollow gasps of air. ... The coyote's eyes bulged, the mouth gaped, the tongue hung listlessly along the blood-stained jaw. Periodically stomping near the heart the trapper maintained this position for 14 minutes. ... There was no emotion involved, only a degree of disgust when the blow fell short or a brief expression of satisfaction when the blow was effective ... While focussing the camera, I thought how ridiculous it was for a 200-pound man to be stomping on an 18-pound coyote as if his very existence depended on the animal's elimination. The coyote, had he been given the opportunity, would not have even sought revenge. He would only have tried to escape."
"You had a club and bashed the animal's head. It's cruel, it's
horrible. People think it's romantic, but it's not. If people who wear fur
coats ever saw their dog in a trap like that, they'd never wear fur
Raven Wilson, native Canadian and former trapper.
Some leghold traps are set so as to kill rather than restrain the animal. 'Drown sets' are set along the water's edge to trap aquatic or semi-aquatic species such as beavers, mink and muskrats.
"When a muskrat is caught by a leghold trap, the first thing it tries to do is swim to safety. Unable to escape, it will return to shore and chew off its leg. To prevent this, trappers designed a special set with either a stick or wires that permit the muskrat to swim away from shore, but not come back. Hence, the muskrat flounders about on the surface until exhaustion and the weight of the trap overcome it - and then it drowns. ... Drowning an animal by clamping a steel trap to its leg is anything but humane." [4, p21].
Animals for which these traps are designed are used to the aquatic environment and so are able to breathe for varying periods, so death can take a long time. When caught in these traps, mink struggle under water for up to 4 minutes, muskrats for up to 4 minutes 19 seconds, and beavers for up to 12 minutes 40 seconds (although they have survived for twice this in some studies) . Even trapping journals admit that "bone breakage occurs in approximately 50% of the tested animals" (tested on submerged beavers) [1, p14].
This trap, invented by Frank Conibear, came onto the market in 1958, designed as an 'instant-kill' trap. It is essentially a vertical 'break-back' trap, a wire spring trap that is supposed to break the neck. The major problem, as with other traps, is that they are indiscriminate. The trap may do its job on the animal it's designed for, but the wrong sized animal or the wrong species, can suffer immensely. All too often the victim is left with its body crushed between strong wire jaws awaiting one of the fates described above. In a 1975 interview Conibear admitted his trap's failings: "As it is, the small trap is still not good enough. It doesn't always kill instantly. You'd think it would, but there are so many sizes of animals - from the few ounces of the weasel to the 60 pounds of the beaver - that the small type can't handle them all. Conversely, if you get a small beaver in the large trap, it will be caught in the hips rather than by the neck and will suffer a lingering death." (1, p15)
Laboratory trials conducted by the British Columbia Research Council demolish the myth of the instant kill - it took up to 3 minutes to kill 90% of the animals. Other studies show a mink caught across the neck "very alert, active biting metal" two minutes after the trap sprang shut; another, caught behind the front legs and between chest and abdomen was "conscious, aware and alert" before being euthanised at 3 minutes. A racoon was observed screaming at 1 minute, and was still showing a heart beat and having convulsions at 4 minutes 30 seconds. (5).
The cruelty to trapped animals is bad enough, but the traps also kill
animals that are not required by the trapper. These so-called 'trash' include
wildlife and pets unfortunate enough to stumble across these horrific devices.
"Trapping is too indiscriminate to assure a legal furbearer will be the catch on the following morning. Whatever animal is attracted to the bait first, or whichever species walks down the trail first, will be the one that gets caught first." Thomas Eveland, 'Jaws of Steel', p89.
There are numerous accounts of pet animals caught in traps, and although the
fur trade recognises the problem these traps are still legal in many
"A major problem in that respect is that, unlike the vast uninhabited expanses in which most Canadian and Russian trappers operate, the proximity of trapping grounds in the US to populated areas raise the threat to children and domestic animals." 'Fur World', 22.12.97
In the US the Denver Wildlife Research Centre conducted a trapping study on coyotes, trapping them in a particular area at 10-year intervals over a 30-year period. Some of the government's 'best' trappers were used. 1,199 animals were caught. Just 138 of these were coyotes - that's a 'success' rate of just 11.5%. 1,061 animals were non-target, including golden eagles, antelope and domestic livestock. 30 sheep were amongst those caught - the very animal the study was designed to protect. (4, p71)
A former government-employed trapper Dick Randall told the 1976
Congressional Hearings: "Even though I was an experienced, professional
trapper, my trap victims included non-target species such as bald-eagles and
golden eagles, a variety of hawks and other birds, rabbits, sage grouse, pet
dogs, deer, antelope, porcupines, sheep and calves.
The leghold trap is inherently non-selective. It is probably the most cruel device ever invented by man. My trapping records show that for each target animal I trapped, about two unwanted individuals were caught. Because of trap injuries, these non-target species had to be destroyed."
It is said that non-target kills can range from 2 to 10 times higher than target kills. So, if target kills are 30,000 muskrats, non-target kills will be between 60-30,000 annually. As such, the area will lose between 90,000 and 330,000 wildlife individuals. (4, p93) American group Friends of Animals compiled a list of animals it takes to make a fur coat, including the number of 'trash' animals per coat and total hours spent in a trap. A coat made of wild mink fur equates to 60 mink, 180 'trash' animals and 3,600 hours spent in traps.
But trappers are indifferent to the lives of animals and their attitude to 'non-target' species is summed up by a quote from a trapping magazine: "When non-target animals are numerous, there is sometimes nothing you can do but put in additional sets [traps] and thin them down." (6).
Trapping and Endangered Species
The direct threat to endangered species through trapping is detailed above.
In addition to this there are other effects. The recorded figures concerning
accidental trapping of endangered species are lower than the real numbers due
to many incidents going unreported. For example, an 8-year study from a raptor
research and rehabilitation program reported that 21% of all eagle admissions
were caught in leghold traps, 64% of them sustaining injuries that were
eventually fatal (4, p71). But many trappers were unaware of the centre's
existence so didn't take trapped raptors there, whilst others are afraid of
reporting injuries to endangered species for fear of prosecution (4, p80).
Trapping removes large numbers of a species over a short period of time. Removing, say, 25,000 muskrats removes an important food source, resulting in predators putting pressure on other species that may not be able to cope. Most losses will come at the worst time - late autumn and early winter. Some individual predators may suffer malnutrition or starvation as a result, or fail to breed normally.
- 'Trapping Animals for Fur'. A Tyler and WJ Jordan. Care for the Wild, 1994
- PETA factsheet, Trapping: Pain for Profit
- CAFT-US website
- 'Jaws of Steel'. Thomas Eveland, The Fund for Animals, 1991
- LYNX supplement 'trapping'
- Respect for Animals newsletter summer 1997
Link to online copy of anti-trapping book 'Trapping Animals for Fur' http://www.infurmation.com/investig/fur_trap/efnatr01.htm