Environment

America’s trapping boom relies on cruel and grisly tools

In Nevada, bobcat pelts are registered with a state wildlife biologist, who fastens a yellow numbered federal tag to each one, certifying that it was harvested by a licensed trapper and clearing it for commercial sale. Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal

Day after day, the mountain lion struggled to free itself. But the steel-jaw trap held its grip.

Desperate, the big cat bit the trap so hard that it broke a tooth. It tugged and wrenched and twisted. Finally, exhausted and dehydrated, the 7-foot-long male died in the mountains of Nevada in 2013, its left leg still pinned in the trap.

Across the United States, the resurgence of a frontier tradition – commercial fur trapping – is taking a hidden, often grisly toll on wildlife. The activity is legal. It is regulated by state agencies. And for the most part, it doesn’t pose a threat to species’ survival.

But it is carried out in ways that often inflict prolonged suffering and capture many species – including mountain lions – by mistake. And much of it is happening on public land, including national forests, even wildlife refuges.

Fur trapping might seem like a page from the past, a reminder of the days of Daniel Boone and coonskin caps. And in most of the world, it is. Among the few nations where it occurs, none is more important than the United States. Every year, 150,000 trappers here capture and kill up to 7 million wild animals, more than any nation on earth.

In all, more than 20 species are targeted for their fur, from foxes to raccoons, coyotes to river otters. But it is the spotted, marble-white fur of one animal that has sparked a Wild West-like trapping boom in recent years.

That species is the bobcat, a stealthy, stub-tailed cousin of the Canadian lynx that inhabits 47 of the 50 states, yet is rarely seen. As a commodity, bobcats are traded by their pelts, which are skinned off the animals after they are trapped and killed in the field.

Widespread yet elusive, America’s bobcats are prized by trappers for their high-value pelts, which are exported to China, Russia and Europe for fur coats.Credit: Tom Knudson/Reveal

For trappers, the value of a pelt has soared, from under $100 in 2000 to more than $1,400 for top-quality items. Just as the Gold Rush drew a flood of greenhorns into the mountains in the mid-19th century, so too has the prospect of striking it rich in fur drawn novice trappers into the countryside today. Although average prices dropped below $400 last year, bobcat pelts remain one of the most valuable wildlife products in America.

Most of those pelts, though, don’t stay in America, where fur has fallen out of fashion because of concerns about cruelty and pressure from animal advocacy groups.

A trapper carries bobcat pelts outside the Nevada Department of Wildlife office in Fallon. The average price for a pelt in the state last year was $305. The finest-quality pelts are worth more than $1,000. Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal

What’s fueling the market now are buyers in China, Russia, Europe and other parts of the world where fur is a symbol of wealth and power, where luxury garments made from the pelts of 30 to 40 animals sell for $50,000 to $150,000. The number of bobcat pelts exported from the U.S. has quadrupled in recent years, climbing to more than 65,000 in 2013, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

I wanted to know more about that trade, to connect the dots from the wide-open spaces out West where bobcats are caught and killed to the high-end fur stores overseas where eye-popping bobcat attire is sold. What I discovered was a world of stunning scenery and searing pain, a landscape where bobcats and other animals are captured with a device so hazardous that it is outlawed in more than 80 nations, from Austria to Zimbabwe: the steel-jaw trap.

Traps work by slamming shut on the paw or leg of an animal and holding it until a trapper arrives. Often, they are instruments of torture. Bones can be broken. Tendons are torn. Flesh is frayed. Some animals break free by chewing or twisting off a paw or limb.

In other cases, traps inflict little harm. No matter the outcome, trappers say that they respect the animals they kill and that traps are more merciful than death by starvation, predators and other natural causes.

But there’s another problem that compounds the carnage: Traps are no more selective than land mines.

Dozens of species have been caught by mistake in traps set for bobcats and other animals over the past two decades, from federally protected bald eagles to pet dogs and cats, public records show. The danger is greatest at times like these, when the market sizzles, fur fever spreads and the number of trappers swells.

A bald eagle, America’s national bird, is caught in a steel-jaw trap along a hiking trail near Juneau, Alaska, in December 2014. It later was euthanized.Credit: Katt Turley

“You get all sorts of people who don’t have the experience and have no business getting into the field,” said Pete Bradley, a former large-carnivore biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Before he retired in 2014, Bradley documented a rash of injuries to mountain lions caught in bobcat traps by mistake, including mangled paws, missing claws and broken teeth.

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“I feel there has to be a massive increase in education if trapping is to survive,” he said. “If we can’t get our act together in the next 10 or 15 years, then it should be banned.”

Another concern is the gruesome way some bobcats are killed after they’re trapped. No longer does death come with the sharp crack of a trapper’s bullet, which runs the risk of bloodstains, bullet damage and a lower pelt price. Now, many are strangled with a wire noose suspended from the end of a pole.

Animal control officers use similar devices, known as catch poles, to restrain animals without harming them. But their transformation into deadly “choke poles” is not well known. A graphic YouTube video shows how it’s done. Very carefully, a trapper slips the noose around a bobcat’s neck and cinches it down tight. The animal struggles violently, gasping for air. Then its body goes limp and it dies.

“God, that just absolutely makes my skin crawl,” said Dave Jessup, a former president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, who was not aware that bobcats were being killed by strangulation. “It stuns me. I can’t believe it’s allowed.”

***

Fur buyer Eric Hansell inspects a bobcat pelt outside the Nevada Department of Wildlife office in Fallon. The animal’s spotted fur is what makes pelts valuable in Hong Kong, Paris and other cities where pricey fur garments are sold. Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal

Trapping in America goes back a long way. It was fur trappers who opened the West to settlement in the 1800s, whose adventures were underwritten by a booming market for beaver pelts in Canada and Europe.

Those mountain men were swashbuckling characters, so larger than life that their names are etched onto the landscape today, from the Bridger Range in Montana to Carson Pass in California. Today’s trappers, though, draw little attention – and that’s the way many prefer it.

Several I spoke to didn’t even want me to use their names because they feared drawing the attention of animal advocates or, worse yet, extremists.

A Nevada fur trapper displays a threatening note he received on a paper plate set at one of his traps.Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal

“I’ve had notes in the traps (saying) that if they find me, they’re going to shoot me, they’re going to beat me,” one Nevada trapper told me. “We’ve always had the mentality to just hide, stay unheard, unseen.”

None of the trappers I met worked at it full time. They had jobs and trapped to spend time outdoors and make money on the side. To them, trapping was a real-world time machine, a chance to match their wits with wild fur-bearing mammals just like 19th-century trappers did. They drove pickup trucks. They wore boots, jeans and stocking caps. They were as critical of animal advocates as the advocates were of them. And some agreed to talk publicly.

Larry Gogert, a retired meat cutter and trapper in Nevada, told me trapping is less cruel than the natural world.

“If you didn’t catch them, they’ll suffer. Something else will kill them,” he said. “What use is the fur if they just die out there? This way, it’s being used.”

Others told me traps are not as harmful as critics contend.

“Modern traps just hold ’em, they don’t hurt ’em,” said Jacob Beechler, a trapper in Nevada. “Honestly, I’ve stuck my hand in them, and it stings a little, but it doesn’t hurt you.”

Similar things have been said for a long time. Four decades ago, Don Young, an Alaska congressman, placed his hand in a trap during a hearing to show that the devices were not that punishing. The stunt backfired, though, when his fingers turned blue and a subcommittee chairman advised him to remove his hand from the trap.

To see for myself, I bought a steel-jaw trap recommended for a bobcat, fox and coyote. I pried apart the jaws and secured them in the open position. Carefully, I lowered a pencil onto the circular piece of metal that triggers the trap. There was a loud bam. Splinters flew through the air. The pencil snapped in two.

Trappers were divided on other matters, though, including the dark art of strangling bobcats with choke poles.

“I don’t like that,” one trapper told me. “I feel like they are suffering. You are choking them to death.” Instead, he shoots the animals in the head. “I want to kill them instantly,” he said.

***

On one point, there’s little debate: Bobcats are faring well as a species. While a precise count is impossible because the animals are so secretive, scientists estimate that there are 1.4 million to 2.6 million bobcats in the U.S., making them the most abundant wild feline in America.

They’re adaptable, too. Bobcats thrive in a wide variety of habitats, from the moss-draped swamps of Georgia to urban fringes of Los Angeles. Yet they are so elusive that most people never see one.

If that includes you, imagine a grayish-white house cat the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. Imagine that animal has large tufted ears, a sawed-off tail, glow-in-the-dark amber eyes and spots as dark as charcoal. That’s a bobcat.

Those spots are what make bobcat pelts valuable in Hong Kong, Paris and other cities where pricey fur garments are sold. Other wild felines with spotted fur – such as ocelots and jaguars – are rare and their pelts cannot be traded legally.

The journey to such places begins in less glitzy locales, including a parking lot behind the Nevada Department of Wildlife office in Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno.

That’s where trappers gathered one day last winter. Overhead, Navy jets streaked through the sky. But on the ground, the scene was circa 1835: Small groups of trappers, their faces bronzed by sun and wind, stood together talking and laughing. At their feet and slung over their shoulders were the pelts of coyotes, kit foxes and bobcats. What brought them to town was the same thing that brought frontier trappers out of the mountains for their yearly rendezvous: business.

They’d come to register their bobcat pelts with a state wildlife biologist, who fastened a yellow numbered federal tag to each one, certifying that it was harvested by a licensed trapper and clearing it for commercial sale, for passage into the global fur market.

Trapper Larry Gogert, shown holding fox and coyote pelts, says trapping is less cruel than the natural world. “If you didn’t catch them, they’ll suffer. Something else will kill them,” he said. Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal

A few feet away were two fur buyers, hoping to strike deals. One declined to speak to me. The other was more outgoing. His name was Eric Hansell.

“Nobody’s going to see eye to eye on every issue,” he said. “It’s funny to see people walk up with a leather handbag and leather shoes tell me that I am the devil because I trap or buy fur. Oh? Where do you draw the line?”

I wanted to know what happened to the bobcat pelts he buys. Hansell was happy to help. He told me he sells them to a fur dealer in Los Angeles.

“He sells to foreign countries,” Hansell said. “He’s got one of the biggest booths at the Hong Kong world fur fair.”

He handed me the dealer’s card. On one side was a photo of a woman in a posh, hooded bobcat coat. I asked how much that coat might cost.

“If it was all the way to the ground, with a full sweep and the hood, it could be $150,000,” Hansell said. “But you got to understand there are 70 bobcats in that garment.”

Such attire, he said, is made from the choicest part of a bobcat – its speckled, milky-white stomach fur. As it turned out, the pelt of one such animal lay in his truck. Its belly fur – white as ivory with inky-dark spots – was stunning.

It was just the color pattern Hansell was looking for – “like Cruella de Vil,” he said, referring to the villain made famous in the Disney movie “101 Dalmatians.” “She was all about the white with the black spots. Same thing with the bobcats.”

The name on the card said Michael Pappas, owner of Michael’s Furs/Montana Fur Traders. There was a website – www.michaelsfurs.com – that opened to a home page showing a nearly naked woman swaddled in what looked like bobcat pelts.

The home page for the Michael’s Furs/Montana Fur Traders website features a woman swaddled in pelts. Credit: Michaelsfurs.com

Other links showed a variety of fur clothing, including full-length coats and shawls. Shopping categories included What’s Hot Now and Let’s Get Wild. Curious, I dialed the number on the business card.

Pappas told me that the finest fur coats are expensive – he didn’t name a figure – but said $150,000 was too high. He did acknowledge that such garments are made from the pelts of many bobcats, but not 70. The actual number, he said, was “maybe 30 or 40.”

Such garments are specialty items, he said. Other coats and jackets cost much less and are made from fewer pelts.

“In an average garment, everything basically gets used up,” he said. “The scraps are sold to people who make them into various things. With all fur, that’s the case.”

He pointed out that bobcats are plentiful. And he did not worry about animal welfare. “In all kinds of animal husbandry, there is some kind of cruelty,” Pappas said. “This is life. It’s not nice eating beef, eating chickens and other stuff. It’s the way life is.”

Others take a more sanguine view. As the International Fur Federation – an industry coalition – says on its website: “Animal welfare is a top priority.” Without going into detail about trap injuries and killing methods, it adds: “We humans have a duty to care for the wellbeing of animals we come into contact with.”

I wanted to know about his clientele, but Pappas grew leery and did not want to talk further.

With that, the trail went cold. I combed through a list of exhibitors at the Hong Kong International Fur & Fashion Fair and found no link to Pappas. Then I found a little-known government database that tracks the flow of American wildlife products to other countries. There, amid a great gray grid of rows and columns, was information that linked the sale of U.S. bobcat pelts to buyers around the world.

That database, maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, opened a window into a little-known network of global fur merchants with roots reaching back to frontier times. But it was also a testament to the tenacity of American trappers, to an avocation so bloodied by anti-fur protests in the 1990s that some predicted it would not survive.

“As the fur industry dies, inevitably, sport and commercial trapping will also,” Paul Irwin, then the president of The Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a 2000 book, “Losing Paradise.” “Yes, furs are dead – even the most fashion-conscious Americans won’t wear them.”

America’s trappers, though, found new customers – lots of them – in the riptide of new wealth in China and Russia, the database shows. They also continued to sell pelts to longtime clients in the European Union, where steel-jaw traps were banned in the 1990s.

Like a road map, the database shows that many pelts leave the U.S. on the same trade route that has carried fur since the 19th century. They are shipped north to Canada, where they are sold at North American Fur Auctions, a descendent of the iconic Hudson’s Bay Co.

At its winter sale in 2013, business was white hot. More than 700 buyers registered, including 470 from China, 100 from Russia and Greece and 50 from South Korea.

“Our auction room was full to bursting each selling day,” a press release says. “Throughout the wild fur sale, Hong Kong/China was exceptionally active.”

There were mountains of pelts from which to choose, including river otter ($113 each), coyote ($94) and red fox ($66). But bobcat pelts, which are marketed as “lynx cat,” brought top dollar – an average of $589, a record high.

“Greece and Russia dominated with good support from China,” the press release says.

China’s appetite for wildlife products – many of them illegal – is well known. It is what’s driving the poaching of Africa’s elephants and rhinos. But the sale to China of fur pelts from American wildlife trapped under inhumane conditions plays out in the shadows.

“Most people don’t even know this is happening. They think it went away years ago,” said Don Molde, a retired psychiatrist and wildlife advocate in Reno, Nevada. “There is no reason to treat animals this way anymore.”

Many U.S. companies export bobcat pelts. And in that obscure government database, I discovered that Pappas, the L.A. fur dealer, is one of the major ones. In 2012, he sold more than 3,500 pelts worth about $1.8 million, according to the database.

One of his largest shipments – 327 bobcat pelts for $308,000 – went to Yves Salomon, a fashion designer in Paris. Late in 2012, two dazzling Yves Salomon bobcat garments were worn by models at a fashion show in Moscow sponsored by North American Fur Auctions.

“These flawless, delicate furs seemed to float down the catwalk,” a fur auction website says.

One of my friends was vacationing in Paris last year. I asked him to drop by Yves Salomon, on Rue Saint-Honoré in a stylish part of town near the Jardin des Tuileries. He found two luxury bobcat garments. One was a jacket for $49,500. The other was a full-length coat with a six-figure price tag: $150,000.

***

Pressure for reform is growing. Last year, a bill was introduced in Congress to ban trapping on one environmentally critical part of the public domain: national wildlife refuges. In California, officials voted last year to ban all commercial bobcat trapping. In other states, advocates are waging battles to outlaw trapping on public lands.

Many of the finest-quality pelts – the kind models wear – come from the Mountain West, where frigid temperatures make the fur thicker. In that region, one state harvests more bobcats than any other: Nevada.

Nevada has a long tradition of trapping. Its capital, Carson City, is named for a trapper and frontier scout: Kit Carson. There is a folk song about a modern-day Nevada trapper-turned-outlaw – “Claude Dallas” – with bobcat lyrics:

Claude, he became a trapper and he dreamed of the bygone days,And he studied bobcat logic and their wild and silent ways,

In the Bloody Runs near Paradise, in Monitors down south,

Trapping cats and coyotes, living hand to mouth.

Even in Nevada, trapping was in decline by the late ’90s. Fewer than 400 residents had licenses. But when bobcat pelt prices began to climb, the state’s trapping spirit sprang back to life, too.

Last year, more than 1,300 residents had trapping licenses. The number of bobcats trapped leapt, too, from 949 in 2001 to 3,333 in 2013, before dropping to 1,641 last year. The price for a pelt in the state soared from $85 in 2000 to $447 in 2014, but tumbled to $305 last year as the economies in Russia and China weakened.

Letting market demand influence the harvest of wildlife is risky. It led to the slaughter of shorebirds in America for another fashion trend a century ago: fancy ladies hats. The risk of overexploitation is too great.

Bobcats, by their nature, are vulnerable to exploitation. The problem is not biological – it’s psychological. Like all cats, bobcats are curious. The flash of a bird’s wing, the whiff of a rabbit gets their attention – fast. After all, it can mean dinner.

Trappers take advantage of that trait. They sprinkle drops of animal scent around their traps, even dangle tinsel over them to grab their attention. Bobcats can’t resist. Curiosity, it seems, really does kill the cat.

Coyotes are curious, too, but they sometimes learn to avoid a trap. Bobcats don’t.

That’s why bobcats can be wiped out from heavily trapped areas. It’s also why some trappers stop trapping after they’ve caught a few.

“It’s always good practice to get out of an area where you’ve caught a couple and leave seed, let them breed, and you’ll be able to come back next year and trap the same area,” one trapper said.

It’s not the number of animals, though, that worries some wildlife professionals. It’s the trauma bobcats and other animals endure when caught in steel-jaw traps.

Steel-jaw traps can inflict serious injuries to wildlife. This mountain lion was maimed by a trap set to catch bobcats in Nevada.Credit: Nevada Department of Wildlife

“Even lab rats have to be treated more humanely than animals that are subject to trapping in many of the states,” said T. Winston Vickers, an associate veterinarian with the University of California, Davis Wildlife Health Center.

Invented in the 1820s, traps are sold in many sizes and strengths. Today, some have padded jaws and other features designed to make them less cruel. But in many states, there are no requirements that such equipment be used. And even though trapping is commonplace on federal land, the U.S. government leaves regulation to the states.

Many factors determine the fate of an animal in a trap, including what part of the paw or leg is caught. One factor, though, is especially critical: how much time the animal spends in the trap.

Time is so critical that scientists who use padded traps to capture wildlife for research check them at least once a day.

“I have always practiced 24-hour trap check,” said Carter Niemeyer, a retired federal wildlife biologist in Idaho with more than four decades of experience. “I have caught mountain lions in wolf traps and their feet have been fine. I have caught black bears in wolf traps and their feet have been fine.

“Traps left out for 48 to 72 hours or longer, it’s inhumane for the animals,” he added. “I don’t know how to say it more profoundly.”

Steel-jaw traps work by slamming shut on the paw or leg of an animal and holding it until a trapper arrives. The devices are outlawed in more than 80 nations, but not in the U.S. Credit: Tom Knudson/Reveal

In at least seven Western states, trappers are not required to check their traps daily. In Montana and Alaska, there is no time limit. In Nevada, where traps can be left untended for 96 hours, authorities cited the president of the Nevada Trappers Association in 2014 for not checking his traps for 10 days.

Earlier, in 2011, Nevada authorities discovered another trap line that hadn’t been inspected for months. The bones and body parts of animals lay scattered about. In one trap was an especially ghoulish sight: the skeletonized carcass of a desert bighorn sheep in what a law enforcement report called “a mummified advanced state of decay.”

“All you have to do is think about it: two, three, seven days without food or water, exposed to the sun, the cold, the wind,” said Dave Jessup, the former wildlife veterinarians association president. “There is no way you can shield an animal from suffering under those circumstances.”

Mary Katherine Ray has seen the suffering firsthand.

One day in 2011, as she was leading a Sierra Club hike on public land in New Mexico, she spotted something moving in the brush – a coyote in a trap tethered to a chain.

“She would lunge to try to get away and reach the end of the chain. And it would flip her over,” said Ray, a retired high school teacher. “She would do it again and again. The trap was slowly wrenching her foot off.”

Ray tried to free the coyote but couldn’t. The next day, she returned with a game warden for another try.

“When we got there, she had managed to finish the job,” she said. “She’d wrung her foot off and was no longer in the trap. I don’t know what happened to her. I am haunted still.”

Ray volunteers for a group called Trap Free New Mexico, which is working to ban traps on public land. On her travels gathering signatures for a petition, she often hears stories about another consequence of trapping – the collateral damage.

No database tracks how many – or what kind – of animals have been trapped by mistake. But neither is there a shortage of information. Much of it is archived in the filing cabinets and computers of state and federal agencies, where it often is accessible only through public records requests.

In Nevada, authorities pay close attention to the plight of a large, iconic carnivore: the mountain lion. The physical condition of every mountain lion shot legally by hunters, found dead in a trap or euthanized in the field is recorded. That data, obtained by a public records request, makes for grim reading:

1/30/2013 – Clan Alpine Range. Female. Caught in trap by accident. Lion had to be euthanized due to severe injuries to front left foot.

1/25/2013 – Ruby Range. Male. Caught in trap by accident. Dead when trapper arrived. Trap mark on left front foot. Right canine broken.

4/1/12 – Carson Range. Female. Had been trapped, lost two front toes and then starved to death.

But one of the most common casualties is one of the most familiar – the dog. The danger is so great that some wildlife agencies post videos showing how to release dogs from traps.

One afternoon five summers ago, John Otis, a professional elk-hunting guide, was walking his dog – a German shepherd-Labrador retriever mix named Cisco – along a country road with his wife in New Mexico.

A few years ago, John Otis was walking his dog, Cisco, along a country road in New Mexico when Cisco stepped in a steel-jaw trap. “You can’t unhear that sound, of steel on bone,” he said. Credit: Courtesy of John Otis

As Cisco zigzagged through the brush, Otis heard a dull thwack.

“You can’t unhear that sound, of steel on bone,” he said. Then he heard Cisco howl.  “He was flipping out,” Otis said.

Cisco had stepped into a trap. Rushing to his dog’s side, Otis threw a coat over Cisco’s head to prevent him from biting. As his wife lay on the dog, pinning him to the ground, Otis began to battle the trap.

One minute passed. The trap held firm. Another minute went by. Frantic, Otis wedged his fingers between the steel bars and pulled. No luck. The trap seemed welded to Cisco’s paw. He pulled harder. Finally, Cisco was free.

“He limped for a couple of weeks, but it didn’t break the skin or any bones,” Otis said. “It could have, very easily.”

For Otis, the incident was more than a close call. Although he earns a living as a hunting guide, it has turned him into an anti-trapping advocate.

“It is a real emotional topic for me,” he said. “I remember it so vividly. I just remember the pain and the horror my dog was going through. I couldn’t imagine an animal in a trap for two and a half days. It’s a slow, lingering death.”

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