Thursday, August 23, 2007

Trapping and the Cull of the Wild

Phil Brown's 1,202 red fox.

Over at Mike Hackenback's blog for Outdoor Life
he posted a picture (above) of 1,202 red foxes caught by Pennsylvania trapper Phil Brown, and wondered if this was a record.

The short answer is, "not quite," but maybe close. I have no idea who actually has the record (or even if there is such a thing for a less-than-60-day trapping season), but one contender would have to be Pete Leggett who used to live in Maryland (he died in 2004 at the age of 79), who took 1,220 fox in a 53-day trapping season in 2003. Mr. Leggett regularly pulled in over 1,000 fox a year. Pete's son, Ron, now runs the business. And yes, this is the Leggett's of the "Leggett's K-9 Exciter" fame. A picture of the fox trapped in the 2003 season can be found below.

Regulated fox trapping does no harm to fox populations, as the fox populations compensate by having slightly larger litters, while mortality due to mange and starvation tends to decrease due to an abundance of food and less back-to-back den occupation.

What's fascinating to me is how many people are horrified when they see the picture of so many dead fox pelts .

Why are you horrified, I ask? Well fox are rare.

They are not. In fact, it's only possible for one person to trap so many fox in less than 60 days because they are so common. The number of red fox in the U.S. is large and growing everywhere except where the coyote population is keeping them down.

But they're just killing them for fur and profit! So? It's not my method of making a living, but killing a wild animal for fur and profit is morally superior to killing them for mere meat. Most people -- including you and I -- are OK with eating meat, aren't we? So too is the fox.

How is killing for fur superior to killing for meat? Well, just think about it for a minute: We raise chickens, cattle and pigs in cages and feed lots for no higher purpose than a few calories and a good bowel movement a few hours later. How is that morally superior to the folks who value the freedom of wild animals and who kill them, in season, for a fur coat that may last 20 years or more? A fur coat may last a lifetime; a hamburger is gone with the flush of a commode.

But killing fox is cruel. Actually, trapping a fox is really no worse than what Mother Nature has in mind for this same animal. The harsh reality is that wild animals do not die in hospital infirmaries with a morphine drip, and soft music playing in the background. Mother Nature and the modern world kill old and adolescent, prime and aged, with almost equal vigor. These "natural" deaths are rarely quick or painless. The real world is not a Disney production. Remember that the alternative to trapping is not immortality; it is often a prolonged and miserable death from disease such as mange (pictured at left) or distemper, starvation, poison, a gut shot, predation by coyote or dog, or (most common of all) vehicle impact (also pictured at left).

But traps are so painful. Again, not really. The modern leghold trap is quite different from the trap used 50 years ago, and the law requires that all traps be checked at least once every 24 hours. A modern leghold trap has offset jaws, and as a result the paw of the animal is caught firmly, but generally with very little serious damage. In fact, leghold traps are routinely used by wildlife biologists to trap, tag, radio-collar, and move wild animals all over America. Every transplanted wolf in the Yellowstone, for example, was first caught in a leghold trap, and the ones that are wearing radio collars today are routinely caught in leghold traps by scientists who have to switch out the batteries in those collars.

Bottom line: Fox trapping does no real harm to fox populations, and may do quite a bit of good in some circumstances where overcrowding might lead to more painful methods of death or culling. Trapping is also a valuable intervention when it comes to the protection of native bird populations; so important, in fact that the National Audubon Society has successfully sued to keep fox trapping legal.


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