Air Date: Week of February 19, 1999
Connecticut trappers are up in arms. Local animal rights activists are buying up exclusive trapping permits and using them to protect animals instead of ensnaring them. Trappers say the activists are allowing the populations of fur-bearing animals to grow out of control. Neal Rauch reports.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Not too long ago, wearing fur was a sign of power and wealth. Coats of sable, mink, and fox symbolized the height of fashion, but today fur is less trendy and more controversial, especially as animal rights groups protest the trapping of fur- bearing creatures as cruelty. In states including California and Arizona, pro- and anti-trapping advocates have been doing battle at the ballot box. In Connecticut, animal rights activists have taken another tack: using their own financial resources to thwart programs that allow limited trapping. But trappers are fighting back and are pushing the state to stop the activists in their tracks. Neal Rauch reports.
RAUCH: Gun shots ring out from a firing range at the Thin Fur and Feather Club, site of a fur-trapper's auction. The semi-annual event is held in Chaplin, Connecticut, in the eastern part of the state.
(Gun shots continue; fade to people mulling around. Man: "I don't think so, he's frozen.")
RAUCH: In the auction room are about 50 people, overwhelmingly male, with baseball caps, fatigues, and flannel shirts. Hunting trophies line the walls. On 4 long tables are piles of pelts from 11 species, including muskrat, beaver, and fox. Some of the skins are pulled inside-out.
CHOWANIEC: This is what we call case skinning.
RAUCH: Trapper David Chowaniec.
CHOWANIEC: They're actually sunned, scraped, and then are placed on the forms with the flesh side out and are dried that way. As you can see, it is like cardboard.
RAUCH: Another trapper, Robert Kukuck, shows off his wares.
KUKUCK: You want to see something nice, that's a red fox, right? You can feel that, it's nice. I'll take 10 bucks for it. Hopefully.
MAN 1: One coyote, $6.
MAN 2: Rejected.
MAN 3: Pull the coyote.
MAN 1: Pull 'em. Six beaver.
RAUCH: Many of the offers made at the auction are rejected by the trappers, who will take their pelts home and hope for a better deal at the next meeting. These men say they're lucky if they break even. They don't do this to make a living, it's more for the adventure and tradition.
MANNETTI: These are the traps of choice. They're both steel, they're both spring- loaded. One's designed to hold an animal, the other's designed to crush an animal.
RAUCH: Bill Mannetti holds a Connecticut State trapping license.
(A trap shuts)
MANNETTI: This theoretically would break a neck, crush the vertebrae, but we have 40-50 pound beavers in Connecticut. An animal could take a very long time to die in here.
RAUCH: For 13 years Bill Mannetti has had the exclusive right to trap in this wooded area of Quinapiac River State Park in North Haven. Connecticut seeks bids from people with trapping licenses for about 120 parcels of public land throughout the state. The highest bidders are the only ones allowed to trap on a given parcel.
MANNETTI: When you catch your animal alive on a trap line you have to either bludgeon it, you can shoot it through the ear canal if you have a gun permit. But if it's a fox, you don't want to damage the pelt at all. So I was taught to try to stun the animal by striking on the bridge of the nose, and then stand on its rib cage and grab the hind legs and pull like hell, crushing the rib cage, suffocating the animal, crushing the heart.
RAUCH: Although Bill Mannetti has had to take a trapping course in order to get his license, he doesn't catch any animals and never has. He's a co- founder and president of the Animal Rights Front, based in New Haven. Its members have won bids on about 47,000 acres, over a third of the public land Connecticut designates for trapping.
MANNETTI: All we're doing with this effort of ours is sabotaging an existing program, simply to get the exclusive rights to as many parcels as we can and turn them into no-trapping zones.
RAUCH: It's a small animal rights group. Only a dozen or so members have spent about $6,000 last year for 35 parcels of land, much of the money coming from their own pockets. Bill Mannetti says the majority of Connecticut residents also consider trapping cruel and barbaric. He likes to point out that there are only some 360 trappers in the entire state.
MANNETTI: Since it's such a small percentage of the people who do this for recreation, they're not earning a living doing it. Once residents of Connecticut learn that trapping takes place, the use of these steel traps to catch fur- bearers in Connecticut, they're appalled and outraged.
RAUCH: Mannetti says he's not impressed with the newer soft-catch devices, kinder, gentler, steel traps that have rubber padding. Traps often don't kill, and most of the suffering, he says, begins after animals are caught. They may wait up to 24 hours before the trapper is legally required to return.
MANNETTI: The animals don't sit placidly in these traps. They struggle very, very violently to break free. Studies have shown that 85%, 87% of all the fox caught on a steel-jaw leg-hold trap end up showing at knee cropsies to have swallowed their own teeth because they break them off by biting the steel. They swallow their own fur, flesh, and knuckles, because they literally chew those off, they're biting so hard at the trap.
CROOK: We use the best methods we can.
RAUCH: Bob Crook is a lobbyist representing hunters, fishermen, trappers, boaters, and gun users in Connecticut.
CROOK: At the capitol, when I lobby these things, I snap the same traps on my fingers that I use for animals. I don't have any broken fingers or any deformed fingers, as you can see.
RAUCH: Bob Crook, whose group is called the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, says most of the trapped animals die quickly.
(To Crook) Why do you do this?
CROOK: I like the outdoors. I like the animals.
RAUCH: So why do you need to kill them?
CROOK: Well, because that's the nature of things. You have to take some of the excess animals.
RAUCH: Do you own any pets?
RAUCH: Do you ever make that connection with these animals that you trap?
CROOK: Oh, sure. I think there's a feeling of compassion. I feel remorse when I shoot a deer. At the same time, I feel an exhilaration that I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish. There are mixed emotions amongst all of us outdoorsmen, I'll tell you that. Even when I catch a fish.
RAUCH: But you still do it.
CROOK: I do it.
RAUCH: The assistant commissioner for Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection, David Leff, says wildlife should be managed.
LEFF: This is a resource just like timber. We believe it ought to be harvested.
RAUCH: As to whether or not trapping is cruel, David Leff says you have to look at the whole picture.
LEFF: Nature is not, you know, the warm fuzzy thing that we very often associated it with. There is danger from predation by other animals. There is danger also from disease and starvation. Those kinds of ends are not particularly pleasant.
MANNETTI: I think that's scientific idiocy.
RAUCH: Animal rights activist Bill Mannetti.
MANNETTI: I'm not going to be a cheerleader for starvation. But after the initial hunger pangs subside, there is a delirium that occurs. You're almost in that nether world, almost a twilight zone, where you're no longer feeling pain. You're on your way out. That's not the ghastly, grotesque, painful kind of agonizing death that the hunting community would have us believe.
RAUCH: Mr. Mannetti also takes issue with the view of animals as a natural resource that ought to be used by humans.
MANNETTI: You don't mine these animals as if they were inorganic ore, you know. These are feeling, sension creatures, and they deserve our respect.
RAUCH: But the trappers warn that if they don't take out excess animals, the populations of fur-bearing creatures will explode. In 1996, Massachusetts voters decided to restrict traps that kill and lobbyist Bob Crook says the effects are already being felt.
CROOK: All the wells are getting polluted. People's cellars are getting flooded. The rivers are rising because the beavers are building dams. The beavers are multiplying. Where do you think they're going to go? They're coming right into Connecticut.
RAUCH: Massachusetts state officials agree with this assessment. They say the beaver population has doubled to 52,000, and complaints have gone up some 50% to almost 700. But animal rights activists and some scientists question the state's counting methods. They point out that only 11,000 beavers used to be trapped before the restrictions came into effect, and allowing that number of beaver to survive wouldn't be enough to account for a doubling of the population in only 2 years. Activist Bill Mannetti also says that Massachusetts trappers threatened to conduct an orchestrated campaign of escalating complaints if voters passed the trapping restrictions. And, he says, any figures supplied by state environmental conservation departments, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, should be considered suspect, because often hunting and trapping fees supply most of the funding for these agencies.
MANNETTI: To have an entire department or wildlife division devoted to the interests of these consumers we felt was anti-democratic. The vast majority of people don't hunt in Connecticut. The vast majority oppose hunting. The vast majority opposes trapping.
RAUCH: So the debate continues, with trappers arguing that they're performing an important function by controlling populations, and animal rights activists saying trapping doesn't in fact keep populations in check because the species quickly rebound. They say there are better ways to remedy problems the animals may cause. For instance, flooding resulting from beaver dams could be solved by running pipes through the dams to keep water levels from rising. This is the preferred method in Maine, which has over 100,000 beavers. Lobbyist Bob Crook doesn't feel the activists have the right to impose their beliefs on him. His group is pushing for a change in Connecticut law that would allow only actual trappers to bid for the parcels of land.
CROOK: We're going to make it performance-based, which is true of any other contract that the state writes. If you haven't tagged an animal, if you haven't been to a fur auction, if you can't document trapping an animal within the last 5 years, then you can't bid on the property.
RAUCH: There has also been talk of dispensing with the bidding process altogether, so that anyone with a trapping license could trap anywhere. But the Department of Environmental Protection's David Leff has thrown cold water on both these ideas. He says, though, the entire trapping system is under review.
LEFF: Exactly how we're going to reorient the program, and what modifications we make, I don't know yet.
RAUCH: In the meantime, animal rights activists can continue to enjoy their no-trapping zones in Connecticut's woods, at least for now. The state is expected to make its decision on changes to the trapping law by the end of the summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch.
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