Anti-Trap Measure Raises a Howl
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 1998; Page A08
In the continuing experiment in participatory democracy that is sweeping the nation in the form of citizen-initiated propositions, there is this: Voters here in California are being asked to choose between the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.
That seems, anyway, to be the gist.
A coalition of humane societies, which have succeeded with similar measures in other states, seeks to ban the use of so-called steel-jawed leg traps, which are used to capture and often kill animals in the wild, be they varmint muskrat or predator coyote.
But the Audubon Society protests, saying the traps are needed to control predators such as the coyote and nonnative red fox that can decimate endangered populations of shore-nesting birds such as terns, plovers and rails in a single night.
So who takes the hit: feathered or furry friends?
The debate is not as obscure as one might think. In fact, propositions to protect animals -- and opposing ones to sanctify hunting and trapping -- are all the rage this political season. And they are generating as much heat in the animal rights and hunting communities as taxes, abortion, HMOs, gun control, gambling or education -- all hot topics given to emotional appeals.
"Animal rights are perhaps the fastest-growing grass-roots issue in the nation," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, which is at the forefront of the trapping ban in California, where hundreds of unpaid volunteers gathered 533,504 signatures to put the measure before voters. "And I can't think of a type of animal-use subject that is the cause of more activism than steel leg-hold traps."
There are 10 animal-related initiatives before the voters next week in eight states. They range from protecting mourning doves in Ohio to outlawing cockfighting in Missouri to restricting hog lots in Colorado.
California voters will decide two animal-related propositions. In addition to the measure seeking to ban leg traps, another initiative makes the possession, transfer or receipt of horses for slaughter for human consumption a felony. This in a state without a single horse slaughterhouse.
In Utah and Minnesota, initiatives seek to preempt such animal rights measures by asking voters to support propositions to protect the state's hunters from further attempts to limit their ability to hunt, fish and trap.
Here in California, the trap ban looks like a winner. What voter, faced with the puzzle of propositions here next month, will not punch the ballot to do away with something that seems so inhumane and archaic as steel-jawed leg-hold traps?
The measure is endorsed not only by humane organizations but also by Hollywood celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone and Martin Sheen. The coalition's World Wide Web pages and campaign materials show pictures of healthy beavers, bobcats and pet dogs whose paws are said to have been maimed when they accidentally stepped on a trap. A three-legged dog named Dillon attends news conferences. The name of the coalition is ProPAW.
Pacelle of the Humane Society says the measure, in essence, seeks to end trapping in the state for commercial or recreational purposes, and he argues that the days of trapping wild animals for fun and profit are numbered.
Trapping to protect livestock from coyotes or levees from burrowing muskrats would be allowed to continue, Pacelle says, but the animals would have to be trapped using cages, boxes or snares -- not the steel-jawed leg traps.
None of this pleases Keith Carly, a trapper and president of the California Trappers Association. Carly said most trappers work for water districts and the state and federal agriculture departments, which contract with them to control muskrats and beavers that can weaken irrigation canal levees.
"Your muskrat is the trapper's meal ticket," Carly said. Of the 24,000 animals trapped for their fur last year by 257 licensed trappers in the state, about 17,000 were muskrats. Trappers who snare muskrats during fur season usually are not paid for the service by the water district or agricultural agency. Compensation is in fur, and the average price for a muskrat pelt is about $3.25. The pelts go overseas and end up as glove lining, often sold back to consumers here as "Hudson Bay Seal."
"You got to trap a lot of muskrats to make it worth your while," Carly said. The "trapping industry" it is not.
Carly sets his steel-jawed leg traps in the water. By law, the jaws must be padded with foam or rubber. No matter. The traps grab the muskrat's leg and hold the animal underwater, where it drowns. Carly said he would gladly use other kinds of traps, except they do not work. And coyotes are too wily to be trapped in box cages, he said. "The only coyote you catch in a cage is one that is desperate and sick."
On its Web page and materials, the "No on Four" coalition does not show cute furballs. It shows a snarling, crazed-looking coyote. The coalition points out that most of the trapped animals are, as it states, "filthy, diseased rodents," meaning the lowly muskrat.
The trappers, however, do not have much clout in California, their average annual income being about $700. So the measure is being fought by farm, ranching and hunting associations and by wildlife managers through the Audubon Society.
"I really wish I wasn't spending time on this," said Audubon's California legislative director, John McCaul. "This is highly emotional and very frustrating. There are so many bigger issues we could we working and uniting with the humane societies on."
The Audubon position is that a new law would make it more difficult to control predation on endangered birds by banning traps that are humane and efficient. In Massachusetts, which passed a similar ban, McCaul said, wildlife biologists resorted to shooting predators. Pacelle of the Humane Society counters that federal law will allow for the continued use of the traps to protect federally endangered species, a point of disagreement between the two sides.
"I'm not optimistic we're going to defeat this issue," said McCaul. "It's a fact that hunting and trapping are fading out in California. And the public has this image of a toothed monster of a trap, which has been outlawed for years. It's a hard one to fight."
And if it passes, McCaul said, he believes it will follow the path of most propositions here: to court.
THE BALLOT BATTLE
Over the course of the 1998 campaign, The Washington Post is examining the politics of ballot initiative campaigns -- the people behind them, the money that's spent, and the issues. Does this increasingly popular way of legislating represent democracy at its best, or is it a menace to representative government?
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