Sixty years ago, a one-time trapper turned writer named Frank Conibear was presented the Certificate of Merit from the American Humane Society for inventing a body-crushing trap designed to quickly kill wild animals rather than merely hold them.
Perfected by Canadian trapper Eric Collier in the years that followed, the so-called “Conibear trap” was by the early 1970s selling at the rate of a million units per year, according to a story in Fur, Fish and Game magazine, and it was on its way to rendering one of humankind’s oldest forms of wildlife harvest more humane in the eyes of the world.
But don’t try to explain this to the Speiss family now mourning the loss of their beloved Lola.
A 45-pound, husky-beagle mix, Lola was hunting ptarmigan with Joni and son Robert not far off the Glenn Highway this winter when she stumbled upon a Connibear 330, the largest of these so-called humane, killer traps.
Outside, as Alaskans call that land to the south, this trap is usually employed to harvest beaver, and some states restrict the use of the trap to in-water or underwater sets to protect dogs.
“The 280 and 330 series (Conibear) body-grip traps are the largest sizes commonly use in Wisconsin,” state officials there note. “They can only be used in water, with at least 50 percent or more below the surface.
“The 220 body-grip trap is slightly smaller and can be used in water or on land. Dryland use of the 220 body-grip trap, includes numerous regulations that eliminate most concerns for pets. The
160 body-grip trap is even smaller, with slight risk to small dogs. The 110 body-grip trap is the smallest, and is usually no problem for dogs.”
The opening on the 330 measures 10 inches by 10 inches; the 220 is seven by seven. Many dogs can force their head into the former; the latter makes it harder.
But in the case of Lola, this is irrelevant. Whatever the size of the Conibear, she managed to push her head through it.
When Lola’s nose hit the trigger, the Conibear’s steel jaws slammed down around her neck. She would not survive.
Tricky to open
Over the years, too many Alaska dog owners unaware of how-to or unable to release Conibear traps have witnessed the painful deaths of canine friends.
The traps are not all that difficult to open for those experienced in their use although most people need some sort of strap – a leash, a belt, a piece of rope, something – to compress the springs that hold the trap shut.
For those unaware of how the traps work, however, Conibears can be impossible to release.
Aware of this danger, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has produced both a brochure and videos demonstrating how to open the traps. This sometimes makes it possible to safely free a dog.
Whether the knowledge would have saved Lola is an unknown.
Ben believes the trap broke Lola’s neck, but whether her neck was broken or she died of strangulation – a common cause of death when Conibears are used – Ben said Lola was dead in three to four minutes.
All these years later, Minnesotans are still feuding over how to make trapping safe for pets in that state.
“Traps needs to be made illegal, period,” a Twin Cities woman named Madisyn Czarnecki posted on the Safe Trapping MN Facebook page. “There’s no difference between a pet and a wild animal. Those traps are inhumane and barbaric.”
Or they are in her eyes.
Man v. nature
Nature knows neither humanity nor inhumanity. Nearly all death in nature is inhumane by human standards.
The bears will be emerging soon from their dens in Alaska, and the moose will begin giving birth to their calves, and many of those calves – in some places most – will end up eaten alive by bears in front of their traumatized mothers.
Nature functions not by right and wrong, but only by who lives and dies.
Humanity is a human construct, and the Conibear trap was invented to make trapping more humane. It was furthered in this idea by those who believed it would.
The bad wrap on the traditional leghold trap, which Lola would surely have survived, was that sometimes animals were caught and held for days by a leg.
If trap lines were not tended regularly, the animals sometimes died in the trap of starvation, or chewed a leg off and limped away, or were caught helpless by other predators and eaten alive with their leg still held fast.
This is nature. It is, by human standards, inherently cruel. The Conibear trap was supposed to improve on nature.
A well-intended European Union (EU) years ago banned the use of leghold traps because they were cruel and prohibited “the introduction into the EU of pelts and manufactured goods of certain wild animal species originating in countries which catch them by means of leghold traps or trapping methods which do not meet international humane trapping standards,” according to the European Commission.
That restriction helped drive a global shift away from leghold traps to deadly Conibear traps. The EU took great pride in what it consider this step forward:
“In 1997 the EU concluded an agreement with Canada and the Russian Federation on international humane trapping standards. The Agreement was inspired by the desire to agree on international humane trapping standards as well as to avoid trade disputes with the main international fur exporters. The aim of the established humane trapping standards is to ensure a sufficient level of welfare of trapped animals, and to further improve this welfare.”
The intentions were good. But the welfare of Lola, a “trapped animal,” was not improved. It was worsened. She died.
How to regulate trapping to protect pets, especially dogs, has been an issue in Alaska for years, and it has only become more so as technological changes have extended the off-road range of recreationists – both those who trap and those who don’t.
In Lola’s case, Ben reported, the distance off-road was not far.
The trap, he wrote, “was at the Crooked Creek trailhead at Mile 118.25 on the Glenn Highway near Glacier View, east of Chickaloon. (The) trap was set 40 to 50 feet off the trail and 50 yards from the trailhead.
“The trap was placed under a spruce tree, baited with a caribou jaw and artificially scented with musk to attract animals.”
Scents that will lure coyotes, lynx and the rare wolverine – the animals for which a larger Conibear like the one that killed Lola are used – are equally good at attracting most dogs.
Recognizing the risks and the conflicts between dogs and trapping, Ben, an Anchorage attorney, said he is writing up a proposal to submit to the Alaska Board of Game suggesting a ban on the use of body-grip style or “killer” traps with a jaw opening of more than 4-inches above ground within two miles of a maintained road in state Game Management Units (GMU) 13, 14 and 15.
An exception would be made for submerged traps so as not to interfere with beaver trapping.
GMU 15 covers the western half of the Kenai Peninsula; GMU 14, the Anchorage area and the Matanuska and Susitna valleys south of the Talkeetna River and west of Chickaloon; GMU 13 blankets the northern drainages of the Susitna and covers a vast area south of the Alaska Range from the George Parks Highway on the west to the Copper River River on the east to the north slopes of the Chugach Mountain Range in the south.
Most of GMU 13 would be described by non-Alaskans as a “vast wilderness,” but hundreds of miles of the George Parks, Denali, Richardson and Glenn highways pass through it.
In many places along those highways, it is for much of the year rare to encounter anyone within a quarter-mile of the road, but that changes somewhat in winter.
Snowmachines are now in widespread use in Alaska, and once the snow flies, they can create trails almost anywhere. Those trails, in turn, come to be used by hunters, recreational trappers, skiers, snowshoers and even fat-tired cyclists.
Speiss’s proposal to ban trapping within two miles of state-maintained roads is sure to generate controversy as is already evident by the comments on his Facebook page.
There are those there who believe Lola should have been on a leash, an impractical reality when hunting; those who believe all trapping should be outlawed; and those who believe the exact opposite.
There is no perfect solution to resolve the conflict between free-running dogs and trapping, except maybe to return to the leghold traps pushed aside as “inhumane.”
They might break a dog’s leg or ankle. They might even lead to a dog losing a limb in some circumstances. But they don’t kill dogs.
Conibear traps have killed plenty in Alaska and elsewhere.
Two miles off the road is not a long distance to push traps off the road either. Except when it is a long distance. On a hard-packed frozen snowmachine trail, two miles off the Glenn is no more challenging than two miles on Anchorage’s Coastal Trail.
On the same trail, in a foot or two of new snow, those two miles on snowshoes are more than most Alaska couch potatoes could manage.
There are, too, still some people living along these roadways who depend on trapping as a means of income. A few of them access traplines via trails that start at their backdoor.
They once had those trails to themselves. But in these times when snowmachines have evolved to the point where they can go pretty much anywhere, almost all trails near roads connect to other trails that connect to other trails that connect to other trails until almost no trails remain unconnected.
This is not going to be an easy problem for the Board of Game to resolve because there is no easy solution sure to satisfy everyone. But everyone should be able to agree no dog should die the way Lola did.