Bewildered by a lot of claptrap

Following an inflammatory campaign, Ohioans vote on banning leg-hold traps
November 07, 1977

Do wild animals have rights? Ask a Newfoundland sealer or those who weep for the baby seals. Ask a Japanese whaler or the housewife on Fifth Avenue picketing Sony and Subaru. Rights? The answer is muddled by different value systems. Now, in Ohio, another battle has been joined. The weapons are a sprinkling of reason and a torrent of trickery. The issue is an amendment to the state constitution concerning the trapping of wild fur-bearing animals, specifically with the leg-hold trap, and whether its use should be allowed. The leg-hold is the only trap that will consistently take fox, Ohio's most valuable animal, whose pelt sells for up to $42. But its opponents call the trap "a fiendish instrument of torture."

The leg-hold consists of a spring and two smooth steel jaws—teeth are no longer legal—which snap shut when an animal trips a lever between them. Injury is less likely to be caused by the snapping than by the animal's frantic efforts to escape. But an Ohio law requires all traps to be tended at least once every 24 hours. Trappers say animals do not panic that quickly, and they talk of releasing dogs and house cats unharmed. Opponents, though, say the 24-hour law is not enforced, and they talk of finding feet that have been chewed off in desperation, or of skeletons in neglected traps. They suggest the use of the Conibear trap, which kills instantly, though it would not catch foxes and in the larger sizes could kill cats and dogs. But there is no disagreement about the extent of Ohio's trapping industry, whose harvest of 1,108,881 pelts in 1975-76 was second only to Louisiana's 2,258,226.

Last year 50,000 Ohio trappers were paid $9,917,466 for their furs, an average of almost $200 per man. Some made upwards of $2,000, and whether they will continue to do so depends to a large extent on what happens with Issue 2 in the general election on Nov. 8. "Yes" is a vote for the animals, "No" for the trappers. Hanging in the balance is the fate of millions of foxes, raccoon, muskrat, possums and mink, not to mention the earnings of 50,000 trappers.

"Vote yes on Issue 2," say the clever TV spots of humorist-adman Stan Freberg. In one of them, two hunters are walking along a wooded path; one steps over a log into an open leg-hold trap and—snap! The hunter's consternation is adequately depicted, but, of course, the ad does not mention that Ohio law requires all traps to be set away from paths used by humans. It also does not say that the trap shown is a No. 4, which might cause problems to a man, but that any size over No. 2 is illegal in the state.

Freberg's ads concentrate on the trap itself. The opposition assaults the TV audience with visions of rabies epidemics, claiming that hordes of untrapped foxes will outstrip their food supply and become susceptible to the disease. In one ad, Dr. John Ackerman, director of the Ohio Department of Health, warns that rabies in the state will spread, and that parks and playgrounds may have to be closed. Who knows what to believe? A 1973 report of the National Academy of Sciences distributed by the anti-leg-trap people says that trapping campaigns as a means of rabies control should be abolished, that there is no evidence they reduce the incidence of the disease.

Another pro-trap ad shows a man and woman relaxing on their porch, a peaceful small town scene. There is then a cut to a swarm of rats, and a voice intones, "Vote against the spread of disease." Demagoguery? As the Cleveland Press said in its editorial urging a No vote on Issue 2, "The amendment is so imprecisely worded that a person could be hauled into court for setting a mousetrap." That sounds farfetched, but it may not be; there are animal-welfare people in Ohio who might gladly use a leg trap, a No. 4, if they could find the person who wrote the amendment.

Section 1 reads: "To prohibit any person from using in this state leg-hold traps in the trapping of wild birds or wild four-legged animals (quadrupeds) and also to prohibit any person from using any trapping device in a manner that will cause continued, prolonged suffering to such birds and animals."

As the Akron Beacon Journal said in its editorial, "Any trapping device can, in fact, cause continued, prolonged suffering. The trapping people are not raising a false issue when they say the amendment could easily be interpreted as a ban on all trapping."

But the latter part of the amendment is causing even more concern. It reads: "To provide that any person may bring civil action for an injunction to stop a violation and to recover costs and attorney's fees."

This provoked the Ohio State Bar Association to release a statement opposing Issue 2, although it said, "The...Association takes no position on the moral issue of using leg-hold traps in capturing animals....

"This section encourages harassment lawsuits. Issue 2, if passed, would award attorney fees only to those who bring suit. No provisions are made for paying costs of defending such lawsuits, even though the defendants may win the case. The possibilities of abuse are endless. Those wishing to harass others could have everything to gain and nothing to lose in bringing suit. This potential weapon is extremely dangerous in a system of justice based on fairness."

The various controversies have clouded the issue, which is a pity, because it is fundamental and profound: Are wild animals to be treated as individuals, with kindness, or as a resource to be harvested, like corn? The trappers are not cruel men. They love their dogs. But their concern is for the welfare of animal populations and not with Rocky Raccoon or Alvin Chipmunk. That is what has come out of numerous debates, such as one held recently in the Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake. The speakers might as well have addressed each other in Greek.

Speaking for Issue 2 was Bill Brown, a 53-year-old NASA research engineer. In 1975 he had tried unsuccessfully to get a leg-trap bill through the Ohio legislature, one of whose members asked him, "Do animals feel pain?" Because Ohio is one of 23 states whose constitution can be amended by petition, he took that route this year. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (the group fighting the baby harp seal hunt in Newfoundland), of which Brown is a member, contributed $350,000 to the petition drive and campaign, and Brown and his wife Carol led the drive, getting the required 420,000 signatures. Now, in the Avon Lake United Church of Christ hall, Brown was saying, "If we win, fox trappers will lose some money, but it will encourage the invention of more humane traps. And we will be extending the pity and compassion we give to domestic animals to wild animals."

Clyde Simmerer, a state wildlife biologist, did not respond to Brown's statement. "These animals," he said, "are not endangered in Ohio. But their natural enemies are gone, the large predators. The alternative to trapping is crowded habitats, starvation and disease."

Brown replied, "I have found no scientific evidence that trapping is necessary to control populations. But I represent the cause of individual animals. They feel pain. Someone has to consider that, and I object to calling the killing of animals a harvest. It makes them sound like grains of corn."

Simmerer responded, "I see no reason why people shouldn't profit from trapping," thus—considering what had been passing for debate in Ohio—putting the logic of both sides on the line.

In the days following the debate, the campaign began heating up. One pro-trapping group distributed flyers from an organization called Kindness In Nature's Defense, one of which observed that "mosquitoes are part of nature's plan," and urged its readers not to kill them. Another said, "If you know people who just won't give up fishing even when you tell them it's not right to kill anything 'just for fun,' ask them to use artificial flies instead of living worms, which have feelings, too."

These, obviously, were scare tactics designed to link the Kindness organization to the anti-leg-trap people and to convince a wary electorate that if Issue 2 were to pass, fishing and hunting would be the next to go. The election was fast approaching. The voters of Ohio deserved less inflammatory material with which to make up their minds.

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