Trap Draws Protest After Coyote Gnaws Off Its Leg

Times Staff Writer

The discovery that a coyote chewed off its leg to escape a steel-jaw trap in Topanga Canyon--only to hobble into a second nearby trap--has prompted demands for changes in Los Angeles County’s coyote-control procedures.

Animal rights activists are calling for a ban on leg traps and for closer monitoring of county Agriculture Department workers assigned to catch marauding coyotes near residential areas.

Agriculture officials say they keep close records of the condition of all coyotes they capture. But, they say, they were unaware of the Sept. 30 leg-gnawing incident.


Activists learned of the mutilation after an Agriculture Department trapper killed the injured coyote, a 22-pound female, and left it at a county animal shelter to be examined for rabies by a county Health Department veterinarian.

“It was disgusting, really sick,” said Heather Davis, a kennel attendant at the Agoura Animal Shelter. “It had gnawed off its left rear leg above its paw. The second trap had gotten its right front leg.”

Added shelter co-worker Laurie March, an animal-control officer: “I was just sorry she had to hobble around for maybe a week with one leg missing like that.”

Agriculture Department officials said they plan to investigate the incident. They said they know of no other coyote ever being injured in one of their traps.

On Friday, department trappers removed traps from Topanga Canyon. They plan to place the traps in Beverly Hills, where an outbreak of coyote attacks on cats has been reported. The three trappers, who target an area in response to complaints of coyotes, catch about 125 a year, officials said.

“I’ve never heard of a coyote eating off its leg in one of our traps,” said Richard Wightman, a supervising inspector in charge of the trappers, who are called pest-control workers.

“We’ve never found a leg in a trap. Our workers report every single coyote we capture as to age, sex, weight and anything that looks bad about the animal,” he said.

The county’s traps do not have teeth and have a gap between their clamp-like jaws so that blood circulation is not cut off in coyotes’ legs, the inspector said. As long as blood can circulate, there is no numbness that might cause an animal to gnaw its trapped leg, he said.

An inspection of Wightman’s coyote-capture records for Sept. 30 gave no indication that the animal taken from Topanga Canyon was mutilated.

“I would certainly think that if the field trappers see something unusual like that about a coyote, they’d report it to their inspector,” said Robert G. Donley, a deputy director of the county Agricultural Commissioner’s office. “I would certainly hope they would.”

Captured coyotes are shot by county trappers, who inspect the traps every day.

Dr. John Urrico, a county Health Department veterinarian who conducted the autopsy on the mutilated coyote, said animals trapped by the county typically suffer crushed legs from the traps.

The Topanga Canyon coyote had clearly gnawed its leg off, Urrico said Friday. “You get callused by what you see after a while, but this bothered me,” he said.

Animal activists said they have asked to appear before the county Board of Supervisors on Oct. 25 to protest the traps and to demand that the county use box-type traps instead. Such traps have doors behind which coyotes are trapped.

“The jaw trap should be outlawed. There’s no good reason to have them,” said Capt. Barbara Fabricant, a state humane officer from Canoga Park. “People sitting at their desks and writing the laws that allow this are not the ones that have to look these frightened, trapped animals in the eye and then shoot them.”

Fabricant said the county has no idea how many county-captured coyotes have been mutilated.

Lila Brooks, director of the Hollywood-based California Wildlife Defenders, said she will join in the board protest.

“Jaw traps are inhumane, obsolete devices invented in 1823 and never improved since,” Brooks said Saturday. “In our technologically advanced society, they should be able to come up with a more humane device.”

David Brown, a Calabasas environmentalist, said Saturday that county officials should investigate use of padded traps or long trap chains--which can calm coyotes by giving them the impression that they are escaping.

But Topanga Canyon resident Doug Thomas urged against cutting back on the county’s coyote-control efforts.

Four coyotes, including the injured one, were caught by the county during a 2 1/2-month period behind Thomas’ house on Hodgson Circle Drive. Thomas had called for county assistance after his family tried unsuccessfully to catch rampaging coyotes in a homemade back-yard trap.

Dozens of his family’s pet cats have been killed by coyotes in the 25 years he has lived in the canyon, Thomas said. But the last straw came four months ago, he said, when a coyote entered his home through a small “doggie door” and dragged away a pet kitten.

Thomas pointed to a coyote’s fatal mauling in 1981 of a 3-year-old Glendale girl and three coyotes’ non-fatal attack last year on a 42-year-old Agoura man.

The coyotes are “getting too bold, and there are getting to be too many of them,” Thomas said.