OPINION: In the Name of “Recreation”

by David Kelley

A recent poll conducted by the Center for Rural Studies in Vermont revealed that 75 percent of Vermonters oppose leghold and body-gripping traps. The good sense of Vermonters is that we should make these traps illegal. If not statewide, they should at least be illegal on the public lands that are owned and shared by all of us. The few people who want to continue this “recreation” shouldn’t have the right to impose this behavior on our lands when the vast majority of us oppose it.

I used to live in Montana. My neighbor to the east was a man named Curt Carson. Despite the fact that Curt insisted there were no dogs in heaven, he and I were, and I hope still are, very good friends. Curt grew up in North Dakota, and he was a trapper. When ranchers in the Madison Valley wanted a trapper, they called Curt and occasionally I worked with him. I knew very little about trapping then. I grew up in Pittsford, Vermont. My relationship to wildlife was simple. We hunted deer and rabbits. We fished for trout. But I had my eyes opened out west.

In the Rocky Mountains my relationship to wildlife got up close and personal. I watched an antelope give birth to twin fawns a few yards from our cabin. I watched bear cubs play in the chokecherry trees not far from the cabin. In late July we usually camped on Kelly Creek in the Idaho panhandle, and almost every year, around six or seven in the morning, we would see a proud momma moose, with her calf in tow, parade up the creek, the calf’s head just barely above the water. On the Madison River I watched bald eagles swoop down from hundreds of feet and pull trout out of the water in front of me.  In the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area I listened to wolves hunting the same elk we were hunting.

It wasn’t all Disneyesque. I once came across a young antelope that was wet and matted and staggering along the side of a road. I thought it was sick and I stopped. The antelope walked a little farther and then jumped into the ranch irrigation ditch that ran alongside the road. She struggled to get up the bank on the other side. Several hundred feet off I saw a larger antelope watching us. It was probably the fawn’s mother who had jumped the ditch with ease, but the little one following her couldn’t make it. The fawn was left, desperately trying to get back to its mother. I couldn’t find the courage to jump in and lift it. Then the fawn just collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. She was dead and I stood there as her lifeless body floated away down the irrigation ditch.

I have been awed by the struggle and strength it takes to survive in the wild, made even more difficult with the encroachments of mankind. More than that, wilderness and wildlife have renewed and enriched my life beyond measure. And since our earliest days as a nation they have defined much of the American character. The unfettered freedom of wild animals resonates with something deep down in our DNA. Far from the madding crowds, Mother Nature’s harsh beauty and her simplicity ground us in the essential miracle of life.

I live in Greensboro, Vermont now. My relationship to wildlife isn’t as dramatic as it once was.  Still, it was a joy, two years ago, when two fox pups were born beneath the large rock behind our house in Greensboro.  One survived, and we watched him come and go, hunting mice in our hay fields for a year and a half. And I get a kick out of the raccoons that waddle over to our apple trees in winter in search of a meal.

A lifetime spent hunting, fishing, camping, and living in wild places has left me with an enduring reverence for wildlife, and I believe every hunter and fisherman shares that feeling. But hunting and trapping have nothing in common. Without watching a coyote, a fox, a bobcat, or a dog struggling in an MB 650 leghold trap or a beaver drowning in a Conibear trap, it is impossible to fully grasp how hideous these traps are. There is no more skill involved in baiting a trap near where a beaver, bobcat, or a fox is known to live than there is in putting peanut butter on a mouse trap. To subject fur-bearing animals to the unnecessary suffering inflicted by leghold and body-gripping traps in the name of “recreation” violates the very essence of morality.

We Americans and Vermonters are fortunate to have had visionary leaders committed to conserving wildlife and wilderness. That bond with nature, frontiers, and wildlife is woven into our history and our culture. The fur-bearing animals that have in some ways sustained us and been a part of that fabric deserve better. People in the State of Colorado have made these traps illegal, and a lot of people in Montana are trying to do the same. The Colorado law has common-sense exceptions for public health, safety, and the protection of livestock.  It is time for Vermont to likewise move ahead and put an end to this senseless suffering.

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