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Standardizing Cruelty: The International Trapping Debate

Published 03/31/06
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 37 Number 1, Spring 2006

On November 17, 2005, to the delight of animal advocates, the European Parliament rejected a proposed European Union (EU) Trapping Directive.

The Directive — which was opposed by groups such as the Fur Free Alliance, of which API is a member — would have codified into EU law standards for testing animal traps.

If accepted, the Directive would have done animals more harm than good by sanctioning standards that lack scientific merit and by legitimizing and entrenching the use of leghold and other cruel, body-gripping traps.

In their vote, members of the European Parliament agreed with animal advocates and rejected the Trapping Directive. While this victory ensures that, for now, poor trapping standards will not become part of EU law, thousands of animals continue to suffer in body-gripping traps throughout North America as part of quasi-governmental trap testing programs.

History of Trap Testing Programs

The proposed EU Trapping Directive came out of a regulation passed in 1991 to pressure countries to prohibit the use of leghold traps or risk losing the ability to export furs to the EU.

Regulation 3254/91, the “leghold trap fur import ban,” was meant to prohibit use of leghold traps in all EU member countries and to bar the importation of pelts from 13 species of furbearing animals from countries that still use leghold traps (the regulation was later expanded to cover 19 furbearing species).

This regulation was particularly alarming to the North American fur industry, since Europe was one of the largest markets for its products, importing more than 70 percent of wild-caught furs exported by the United States and Canada at the time the Regulation passed.

While leghold traps have been banned by more than 85 nations, the 3 top fur-producing countries — the U.S., Canada, and Russia — continue to use them. To date, only eight U.S. states have banned or restricted their use. Moreover, the leghold trap has been declared inhumane by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the World Veterinary Association, the (US) National Animal Control Association, and the American Animal Hospital Association. Animal advocates hoped the import ban would provide the necessary impetus to force those 3 countries to ban leghold traps, commonly used by commercial fur trappers.

The regulation’s first objective — the banning of leghold traps in EU member countries —was implemented immediately. The import ban, however, was hotly contested.

Leghold trap proponents, led by the U.S., pressured the EU with threats of trade reprisals to modify the import ban. The EU buckled, and modified the regulation to allow fur-exporting countries to continue using leghold traps as long as they adopted “internationally agreed humane trapping standards” — even though no such international trap standards existed then, or now.

This provision provided a loophole for trappers and the fur industry, allowing the U.S., Canada, and Russia to continue exporting furs from leghold-trapped animals to Europe as long as they could demonstrate that “sufficient progress” was being made to develop trap standards and to test traps. The “trap-happy” countries also saw the provision as a way to avoid a total ban on leghold traps, especially if modified leghold traps, such as the padded or “offset” versions, met the standards.

In 1997, the U.S. signed an “understanding” with the EU that allowed the U.S. to continue to sell wild-caught fur to Europe while conducting trap tests through a federally-funded “Best Management Practices” trap testing program.

API and other animal advocates condemned the weak agreement as ineffectual. It is non-binding and defers responsibility for trapping reform to the states. The “understanding” contains a loophole-ridden pledge to slowly phase out use of “conventional” leghold traps without defining which leghold traps are “conventional” and which are not.

Canada and Russia each signed similarly loophole-ridden agreements (called the “Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards” or AIHTS) with the EU, although these agreements are binding, unlike the U.S./EU “understanding.” Implementation of these agreements, however, depends upon ratification by both parties; to date, Russia has yet to ratify its agreement with the EU.

Sanctioned Cruelty

What started out as a positive effort to put pressure on wild-caught-fur–producing nations to phase out use of the notoriously cruel leghold trap has resulted in further entrenchment of such devices and of other traps known to cause immense pain and suffering to animals.

In the U.S., thousands of animals have been trapped and killed as part of the “Best Management Practices” (BMP) trap testing program, which began in 1997.

Overseen by the quasi-governmental International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (whose stated objective is to ensure the perpetuation of trapping and hunting in North America), and with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (largely taxpayer funds) and the International Fur Trade Federation (a fur lobby group), the BMP trap testing program has focused on legitimizing standard leghold traps and ensuring that nothing disrupts the U.S. wild-caught fur trade. Former National Trapper Association President Craig Spoores assured trappers that, “The scientific BMP process will discover that some leghold traps will continue to be necessary and prove best for some American species” (emphasis added).

The BMP program is currently “testing” various forms of leghold traps, foot snares, and kill traps on 25 different furbearing species across the country.

Private commercial fur trappers are paid to participate in the program and are given a set of standard procedures to follow as they trap coyotes, gray and red foxes, bobcats, marten, raccoons, badgers, muskrats, otters, and other furbearing animals.

These trappers and their “technicians” (who can, by protocol, be the trapper’s wife or a trapping buddy) are asked to set certain types of traps on their traplines and, after shooting the trapped animal with a .22 caliber rimfire firearm, aid in the evaluation of criteria that describe trap performance.

That commercial fur trappers are conducting the field work brings into question the veracity and accuracy of the collected data. What trapper wants to admit on a report he is to submit to the federal government that he accidentally trapped an endangered species or family pet or that the bobcat he trapped had struggled so hard in the trap that she severed her foot while trying to escape? Yet in a “progress report,” the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWA) assures that “Technicians ensured captured domestic animals were treated if necessary and returned to owners when possible.”

In one report in the BMP trap testing program, the IAWFA boasts that:

Forty-six coyotes (57.5%) had only mild injuries, including edema and minor skin cuts. Thirty-two (40%) had moderate injuries including broken teeth, major lacerations on foot pads, joint luxation below the carpus or tarsus, or minor periosteal abrasions. These results are among the lowest injury rates reported for coyotes captured in padded traps ... although all others evaluated larger padded traps and injury scales used have changed slightly, making direct comparisons difficult.

IAWFA apparently believes we should be happy that only 40 percent of trapped coyotes had “major lacerations on foot pads.” Such statements speak volumes about the true nature of the traps being tested and promoted by the U.S. government and about the subjectivity of what is “acceptable” in regard to trap-related injuries and trauma.

Subsidized by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of more than $4 million over the last decade, to date the only official recommendation, or BMP, produced by this costly program is a list of recommended traps for trapping the Eastern coyote. Included in the list of traps meeting the BMP criteria for Eastern coyote are steel-jaw coilspring leghold traps — exactly what the EU intended to prohibit!

Although the BMP trap testing program is federally funded, to date the government has not allowed public review of the research projects. The humane community has never been allowed to monitor the BMP trap testing process. Program design and implementation has occurred with no public accountability, transparency, or oversight.

The Canadian counterpart to the U.S. BMP program has focused on “kill” traps such as the Conibear. The program is overseen by the Fur Institute of Canada (FIC), a non-government organization whose mission is to “support and promote the wise and sustainable use of Canada’s renewable fur resources.”

According to Robert Cahill, executive director of the FIC, it costs on average CAN$40,000 to test one trap on one species. More than 153 traps have been tested since 1999, costing more than US$5 million. Tens of thousands of animals have endured tremendous pain and suffering and lost their lives to this “testing” program.

Although Canada is replacing some of its trap testing with computer simulations, testing on live animals persists. Nineteen species are covered in the agreements between the U.S., Canada, Russia and the European Union, and 12 of those 19 species inhabit North America. To date, Canada has certified traps for 10 of the 12 species, but has yet to certify traps for wolves and badgers, 2 species who fight hard and incur significant injuries in restraining traps.

Under the “Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards” (AIHTS), signed by Canada, leghold and other restraining traps would be labeled “humane” even if as many as 20 percent of animals tested in them endure fractured limbs, internal trauma, and spinal cord injuries. The AIHTS fails to assess pain and physiological stresses related to trap injuries, confining assessment almost exclusively to injuries of the trapped limb. Injuries are graded according to severity rated on a “trauma scale.” Animal advocates objected to the use of this term (and to use of the term “humane” in describing trap standards), as a complete assessment of trauma would necessarily include the pain and physiological factors the standards fail to take into consideration.

The AIHTS fails to specify a humane method for killing animals captured in restraining traps. The agreement allows clubbing and suffocation — the standard methods of killing trapped animals.

In order for kill-type traps such as the Conibear to be certified, animals must be rendered unconscious within 300 seconds. What this means is that animals can be forced to endure five long minutes of suffering as their bodies are crushed between two steel jaws — and the trap will still be labeled as “humane.”

Internationally, scientists have condemned this standard as inhumane. Indeed, the term “humane” is highly misleading when applied to the standards. The AIHTS acknowledges that “in certain situations with killing traps there will be a short period of time during which the level of welfare may be poor.”

End Result?

The AIHTS agreement between Canada and the EU is to take effect in the fall of 2007. If at that point Canada has not switched to using certified traps, the EU could conceivably prohibit the import of furs from Canada into EU member countries. However, the likelihood is that Canada will comply, given the weak trapping standards and large loopholes contained in their agreement that allow trappers to continue using steel jaw leghold traps in “drowning sets” for muskrat, beaver, and other aquatic animals.

For the U.S., because of the non-binding nature of its “understanding” with the EU, there will be no meaningful shift to alternative trapping devices. Instead, BMPs will simply be a “recommendation” of trap types for specific species that trappers can choose to follow or not. There will be no enforcement, no legislation, and no regulatory changes to mandate modifications in trapping devices or methods. No traps will be outlawed. And leghold traps will continue to be used — only now with the federal stamp of approval.

Even worse than the non-binding nature of the U.S./EU “understanding” is that the U.S. is now using the BMP trap testing program as a public relations tool to convince Americans that trapping is now more “humane,” based on “scientific research.”

In “Trapping Outreach Communications,” a document produced by the IAFWA, trappers are informed that they should convey to media and the public that trapping is now “tightly regulated,” that traps used by commercial fur trappers are humane, and that “regulated trapping provides many benefits to wildlife and people.” API has worked to debunk these mistruths through our video, Cull of the Wild: The Truth Behind Trapping and companion book, Cull of the Wild: A Contemporary Analysis of Trapping in the United States.

In Europe, we don’t know how this critical issue will unfold, but for now the poor 2005 trap testing standards contained within the proposed EU Trapping Directive have been soundly rejected by the European Parliament, in large part because of the work of animal advocates.

Will Europe re-evaluate the impact of these international trapping agreements and see how far they’ve gone astray from the original intent of pressuring countries to stop using leghold traps? Will they recognize how North American fur proponents are using these agreements and the ensuing trap testing to legitimize cruel traps and ensure access to European fur markets?

The European Parliament’s recent vote indicates that some legislators are beginning to understand the problems. API and our partners in the Fur Free Alliance will persist in reminding public officials that leghold traps and other cruel trapping devices continue to be used throughout North America — and that no amount of PR “spin” can make them humane.

Former Congresswoman Speaks Out against Trap Testing

“Extensive testing of leghold traps has already been conducted. In fact, of approximately 187 trapping field studies conducted in North America from 1975 through 1996, 153 of them involved leghold traps ... Additional leghold trap testing is both inhumane and duplicative.”

(Congressional sign-on letter authored by former Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse dated July 22, 1998, to Robert Livingston, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, opposing use of federal funds for the National Trap Testing Program and “any further testing of leghold-type traps.”)

API Is Part of the Fur Free Alliance

What is the Fur Free Alliance?

The Fur Free Alliance (FFA) is an international coalition of over 25 animal protection organizations working to bring an end to the exploitation and killing of animals for their fur.

What is the Aim of the FFA?

The Vision

We envision a world where no animals are killed or exploited for their fur, on the basis that it is morally repugnant to utilize any animal for such frivolous purposes.

The Mission

We seek, by appropriate legal and non-violent means, to bring an end to the killing and exploitation of all animals for their fur by raising public awareness about the cruelty and negative environmental impacts associated with the global fur trade.

We will accomplish these aims by:

  • Informing the public about the substantial animal suffering caused by the fur industry.
  • Advancing legislative actions and in-depth investigations as needed.
  • Targeting consumers and the fashion industry to encourage readily available alternatives.
  • Working nationally and internationally through joint or individual campaigns. In particular, the Fur Free Alliance (FFA) focuses on the deprivation and cruelty suffered by fur bearing animals both in wild trapping and industrial fur farming.

For more information about the FFA visit www.inFURmation.com.

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