Bill Schultz, a member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, let the spring-operated, steel-jaw animal trap snap shut on the fingers of his left hand.
He didn’t flinch or grimace in pain. He and the professional trapper sitting beside him, Robert Lester, have snapped the traps on their fingers numerous times recently to demonstrate that the devices do not break their bones or cause them injury.
“The offset, toothless, steel-jaw trap provides a three-eighths-inch gap which doesn’t break bones or shut off circulation. For that reason it is a humane trap,” Schultz insisted.
At Grass Valley, a town 5 miles south of Nevada City in the foothills of the High Sierra 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, Debbie Orr and her daughter Jolene, 8, showed a visitor their small, mixed-breed dog Scruffy.
Scruffy is missing his right front leg, amputated, said Debbie Orr, after it was caught in the same type of steel-jaw, leg-hold trap. Orr recalled that a year ago Scruffy was missing for nine days and returned home dragging the trap with his badly mangled foot.
On Nov. 8, voters here will cast ballots for or against Proposition H, which would ban the possession or use of offset steel-jaw, leg-hold traps in Nevada County. If it passes, it will be the first such ban enacted by voters in California, although the boards of supervisors in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties have banned the traps.
It is a deeply emotional issue both here, in this rural Northern California county of 72,000, and across the nation.
“The offset steel-jaw, leg-hold trap is vital to control coyote incursions on livestock in rural areas. Other counties in California and other states are watching the outcome of this, for if Proposition H passes this could snowball,” said John Taylor, Nevada County agricultural commissioner.
Opponents of the traps also complain that a California law that requires that the traps be checked daily is often ignored, meaning that trapped animals can suffer for days before being picked up.
In a letter to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors from the Denver headquarters of the American Humane Assn., Richard J. Meyer, an official of the national organization, wrote:
“The American Humane Assn. demands the nationwide prohibition of steel-jaw, leg-hold traps to eliminate suffering inflicted on animals. It severs tendons, breaks bones but rarely kills animals outright.
“Many trapped animals will chew off their own limbs in an attempt to escape and in such cases they often die from resulting hemorrhaging or infections.”
Tanja Keogh, director of the Grass Valley office of the Good Shepherd Foundation, a national animal protection group with 4,000 members, said that “untold numbers of pets, pet owners and even children have been victimized by these dangerous devices responsible for the most excruciating infliction of pain and fear still permitted in our country.”
Keogh held her pet cat, Suzie, whose leg was amputated after the cat was found in a such a trap 1 1/2 years ago.
Keogh and Art Johnson, a retired electronics technician, head Citizens for a Healthful and Safe Environment, the Nevada County group that gathered 4,135 signatures, more than the 2,500 needed to get the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Only Effective Control
The citizens group tried to get the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to ban the traps, but the board voted 5 to 0 to reject the proposal. “The board felt the traps are the only effective way to (control) the coyote population,” Supervisor Schultz said. “This is part of ranch life, of living in a rural area.”
Opponents of the traps distribute campaign literature that lists 13 Nevada County residents reportedly injured when stepping into one of the traps or when removing a pet from a trap.
Also listed are pet cats and dogs injured or killed in the traps.
One leaflet also shows a photograph of August Katzung of Minneapolis, who purportedly “lost four toes to a steel-jaw trap” four years ago, when he was 13.
Both Sides Give Examples
August’s mother, Nina, however, said in a telephone interview that her son’s injury was not caused by the controversial trap but by a much larger trap with teeth that bit deep into her son’s foot.
Both sides cite horror stories.
The Nevada Coalition for Public and Animal Welfare, which favors the traps, contends that the sole reason for using them is to protect pets, livestock and people from being injured or killed by coyotes.
Coalition literature reports the death of Kelly Lynn Keen, 3, killed by coyotes in the front yard of her Glendale home, Aug. 26, 1981, and lists the names of several children injured by the animals in California in recent years.
Put in Perspective
Opponents of Proposition H have reprinted an article by Walter E. Howard, professor emeritus of Wildlife and Fisheries Biology, that ran in the summer, 1988, issue of UC Davis Magazine titled “Animal Welfare Sensationalism.” It read in part:
“A coyote captured in an offset steel-jaw, leg-hold trap suffers, of course, but let’s put the issue in proper perspective. Such animals are removed because their population growth has forced them to seek out cats, dogs, poultry, sheep or calves rather than natural prey.
“Often overlooked is the suffering each surplus coyote creates when it disembowels sheep and kills other animals. Nature is a blood bath. Modern methods of trapping are usually much kinder to animals than the natural brutality of nature.”
Operated on 20 Pets
Dr. Patrick Donaghey, a Grass Valley veterinarian who operated on Debbie Orr’s dog, Scruffy, said in his 17 years of practice here he has amputated legs from 20 dogs and cats caught in assorted animal traps.
He acknowledged that the county has a problem with coyotes attacking livestock, but insisted that there are steel-jaw traps not checked daily and that other, more humane traps are easily available.
Ron Thompson heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Damage Control Section based in Sacramento. The department has 80 trappers in 41 California counties who set steel-jaw traps when coyote problems occur.
“No pets have lost legs in our traps,” Thompson said. “If an animal lost a limb it wasn’t in an offset steel-jaw, leg-hold trap if the trap was maintained and serviced as the law requires. We catch ranch dogs in the traps all the time and it doesn’t hurt them.”
Richard Wightman, head of the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner’s coyote control program, agrees.
“We have 20 to 30 traps set out at any given time in response to reports of coyotes attacking pets or livestock,” he said. “Coyotes take 20 to 30 dogs a year, 30 to 40 cats, an assortment of chickens, ducks, geese, lambs and goats. I know of no pets ever caught in our traps that have lost a leg. Now and then a pet is caught and gets an abrasion from the trap, but that’s about it.”
Leg Snare Recommended
Tanja Keogh, however, said agricultural officials know there are more effective and more humane traps available “but they won’t use them.” She demonstrated a leg-snare trap she maintains would not hurt a coyote or any animal caught in it.
“Our department and many other animal control departments throughout the country have tested the leg-snare trap and an Easy-On snare trap suggested by Tanja,” Thompson replied, “but those traps do more damage to animals than the offset steel-jaw, leg-hold traps we use. Give us a better, more humane trap and we’ll use it.”
The American Humane Assn. suggests that cage traps be used to catch coyotes, but Thompson said cage traps are great for skunks and other animals but adult coyotes will not go into them.
Worried About Precedent
Meanwhile, as wildlife biologists search for a more effective, more humane trap, supporters of the offset steel-jaw trap worry about the possible ramifications if Proposition H passes in Nevada County.
Gene Toffoli, legal adviser to the California Department of Fish and Game, is concerned about what kind of precedent would be set.
“Comprehensive legislative history has been established over the years, setting guidelines for trapping, with certain kinds of traps permitted and others illegal,” he said. “We cannot have every county in the state enacting something different.”
“There are more than 500,000 licensed trappers in America,” said Ken Seyler, a fourth-generation trapper who is executive director of the National Trappers Assn., headquartered in Bloomington, Ill. “Most of them are aware of the upcoming election in Nevada County, and they will be watching the results with keen interest.”