The flap over traps

Opponents of I-713 say traps are needed to control some nuisance animals, but supporters say the method is cruel, as well as dangerous to pets and people

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

Learning that a small, furry animal had been caught in a trap was an answer to Heidi Meinert’s prayers.

The same news was a nightmare for Heidi Johnston.

In Meinert’s case, it meant professional trappers had nabbed the moles that were making Swiss cheese of lawns in a fancy Bothell neighborhood built by John Buchan Homes, the company where she works.

"I didn’t ask her how she was doing it," Meinert said. "If it kills them, that’s cool, under these circumstances."

For Johnston it meant the family dog, Dimples, had stuck her leg into a steel-jawed trap set along the bank of one of the Twin Lakes in northeast Snohomish County.

"We need to get rid of these traps. Because it’s not just our dog," Johnston said.

These two situations are a microcosm of the debate surrounding anti-trapping Initiative 713. They are also an example of the people who could decide its fate at the ballot box in the Nov. 7 general election.

Supporters and critics of I-713 are focusing their attention around Puget Sound, the state’s most densely populated region. And in a place where most folks wouldn’t know a Conibear trap if it snapped onto their hand, that means hitting on messages that make urbanites care about trapping.

Proponents say the initiative would bar most uses of cruel traps that can threaten a family pet, such as Dimples. It would also stop trappers from killing beavers, foxes and other animals with an eye toward making a buck from the fur.

Opponents warn it would remove a vital weapon in homeowners’ struggles with marauding wildlife, even making it illegal to try to rid their lawn of a pesky mole.

The initiative would virtually ban the use of traps that clamp onto an animal’s leg or kill it by snapping down on its head. It also prohibits the sale of pelts from animals caught in Washington state with those traps.

The issue isn’t whether animals are killed when caught. Both sides acknowledge trapped animals, such as raccoons, will often be killed regardless of what trap is used.

The targeted traps, however, are cruel because they can keep animals alive and suffering for hours, said Lisa Wathne, campaign coordinator for Yes on 713 and a staffer for the animal-rights group the Humane Society of the United States.

"Body gripping traps, leg-hold traps, do not fall into the domain of what is considered humane treatment by most people," Wathne said.

Wathne’s group has spotlighted the dangers the traps can pose for household pets. The organization claims it has heard from more than 50 people in the state whose dogs or cats were inadvertently caught in the traps.

Johnston and Dimples recently traveled to Tacoma to have their story filmed for a television advertisement, destined to become part of a pro-713 media campaign planned for late this month.

The dog, a Labrador retriever and basenji mix, wound up with a cut, bruised leg and a dislocated jaw after getting caught in a leg-hold trap while sniffing around a beaver dam at Twin Lakes, Johnston said. Her husband freed the dog minutes after it stepped into the trap.

The experience made Johnston a strong opponent of traps.

"If I were to meet up with a trapper today I’d challenge him. Stick your hand in there, and we’ll leave you there for 20 or 30 minutes," she said.

The campaign’s messages have found sympathetic audiences in Massachusetts, Arizona, Colorado and California, where the Humane Society has successfully backed similar trapping initiatives. This year, Oregon and Washington voters will see nearly identical initiatives, with the group and other animal rights organizations spending tens of thousands of dollars in Washington.

But initiative opponents say cases such as Johnston’s are rare, and often involve illegally placed traps, not the work of professionals.

While images of cute animals may tug at emotions, they say, it doesn’t show the other side of the picture: hillsides pockmarked with mountain beaver holes, lawns torn up by raccoons and moles, and trees felled by beavers.

"They (initiative backers) are not after the fur industry, they’re after everybody," said John R. Consolini, owner and chief trapper for Northwest Nuisance Wildlife Control, a Redmond-based firm that traps animals causing property damage in King and Snohomish counties.

At a time when commercial trapping is on the decline, Consolini said his business for nuisance animals is booming. Animals trapped because they were damaging property accounted for roughly a third of the 16,000 animals caught in late 1998 and 1999, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The modest mole has become a lightning rod in the debate.

Initiative backers say I-713 wouldn’t cover widely used mole traps, even though they resemble the prohibited "body-gripping" traps. That’s because a section of the initiative specifically targets trapping for "recreation or commerce," leaving out homeowners just trying to get rid of a mole, Wathne said.

But opponents say another section of the initiative is so broad that it includes mole traps.

"If I were Miss Wathne, I would deny outright that mole and gopher traps were banned because that strikes right at the insanity of this thing," said Ed Owens, chairman of the opposition group Citizens for Responsible Wildlife Management.

The state Wildlife Department, which oversees trapping, says the mole traps would be covered by the initiative.

"Are we going to go up to Seattle and have a stakeout for mole trapping? Probably not," said Tom Keegan, manager of the Fish and Wildlife section overseeing trapping. "If someone comes in and says, ‘Hey, there’s a guy trapping moles with a mole trap, and it’s your guys’ responsibility to catch them.’ … Then, something will probably have to be done about it."

That prospect holds little appeal for Meinert in the wake of her mole encounter.

"I do have a right to protect my property," she said.

Aside from the mole debate, Consolini said the initiative would keep him from quickly using the most-effective traps to catch other problem animals such as mountain beavers. The marmotlike animals tunnel into hillsides around houses and beneath trees, weakening the soil and making it more prone to collapse.

Box traps that catch animals alive often don’t work with mountain beaver, making the lethal Conibear trap the tool of choice, Consolini said as he toured a slope near the garage of a Redmond home where he had placed several traps.

Under the initiative, he could only use that trap as a last resort, after convincing Fish and Wildlife that non-lethal methods weren’t working.

Those delays, Consolini said, could saddle homeowners with more property damage.

Wathne countered that the initiative still lets people use the banned traps if they can prove other methods aren’t working, or to protect endangered species. Most homeowners, she said, also wouldn’t have to turn to such traps.

"Homeowners currently deal with those issues in non-lethal ways and can continue to do so, no questions asked," she said.

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