Today’s DEERLAND PSA: How to Safely Release Your Dog From a Trap


It’s almost that time of year again.  Most states’ trapping seasons begin around mid-October, and Minnesota and Wisconsin have now joined Alaska and a couple of western states in legalizing wolf trapping.  Traps will soon be set, and a lot of non-trappers will also hitting the trail—many of them with curious dogs.  Some are just out for a pleasant autumn hike with their dogs, and some are using their dogs to hunt birds like grouse or pheasant.

Inevitably, a small number of those dogs will end up in traps meant for wolves and coyotes.  Although the risk is small, it’s worth being prepared.   I know someone whose dog stepped in a wolf trap last fall.  Fortunately, he knew exactly what to do.  His dog is just fine.

This isn’t a scare-mongering tirade against wolf-trapping, and it’s not an attack on hunting in general.  (After all, it’s often hunting dogs that are especially at risk.)  No matter how you feel about wolves, hunting, or trapping, those traps are generally out there legally. If you’re a non-trapper who has strong misgivings about the whole business, that’s OK.  Please set those feelings aside for the moment and get ready for a quick lesson about traps and trapping.  What you learn in the next few minutes could save your dog’s leg, and maybe even its life.

(I’m not a trapper myself, so this will be very basic.  If you finish reading this post and would like to offer deeper expertise, feel free to do so in the comments.)

Although a quick Google turns up plenty of hits on this topic, some resources are more useful than others.  Many contain information that’s incomplete or unintentionally misleading.  Some sensationalize the dangers, while others minimize the risk and downplay the trauma your dog could experience if it’s caught in a trap.  I’ll do neither.  Here’s a quick overview, plus links to the best information I’ve found so far.

Some internet experts advise that your dog will be safe as long as you just keep it on a leash.  But for both you and your dog, running free is part of the fun.  And obviously, hunting dogs can’t do much pointing or retrieving when they’re on a six-foot leash.  What’s more, keeping your dog on a leash, even a fairly short one, is no guarantee of safety.

That’s because many traps are set right at the edge of trails frequented by wolves and coyotes—and also by hunters and hikers.  The whole strategy is to arouse the curiousity of animals passing by on the trail.  These traps are carefully concealed, and you’ll walk right by them without ever seeing them.  Even another trapper would be unlikely to spot them.  They’re baited with scent-based attractants that arouse the curiousity of all canids.  These are the traps your dog is most likely to encounter.  This doesn’t mean you should freak out every time your dog sniffs at something along the edge of the trail.  But the risk, however small, is real.

Your dog is less likely to step in traps set for animals like mink, muskrat, raccoon, or beaver.  It happens, but far less often—mainly because these traps are set in wetland areas and in or near water.  They’re typically places too wet for hiking or hunting upland birds, but not quite wet enough for hunting ducks.  So I won’t say much about these traps, except to mention that a small percentage of them are body-grip traps.  (Conibear, a a brand name like Kleenex, is often used generically to describe all traps of this type.)  They squeeze the entire animal, often around its neck.  Although they’re intended to be more humane than other trap designs, it will be very bad for your dog if it’s caught in one of these traps—especially if the trap is a larger model meant for beaver or otter.  It will be very difficult to get your dog free, and yet you’d better not waste time.  Every second counts.

Snares are used more rarely.  If your dog is caught in one, you may be able to release it by pulling back, not forward, on the snare’s sliding metal tab.  If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to cut the cable.  Since you won’t be able to do that with an ordinary multitool or pliers, consider carrying a special tool like this one.

Most traps used for wolves and coyotes, however, are leg hold traps that come in one of newhouse 4two basic designs.  The first is a long-spring trap whose design hasn’t changed much in 150 years.  Some of these traps have two springs, one on each side.  You can release their jaws by simply stepping down on the spring(s).  If you’re not confident you’ll be able to do that, consider carrying a couple of ordinary C-clamps that you can use to compress the springs.

The other type is the coil spring trap.  These give you a much smaller tab to step on.  If youtrap_leghold_coil_spring.preview
hunt or hike with your dog in places where there’s a lot of trapping, you could buy inexpensive trap-setting tools like trappers themselves use.  They slip on over that small steel tab to provide extra leverage.  But because long-spring traps are easier for trappers themselves to handle, I’m guessing they’re more popular in most areas.

Either way, releasing these springs can be harder than you’d think—especially since your dog will be hurt, scared, and struggling to escape.  To minimize injuries, try to keep your dog from twisting or pulling on its leg.  Experts advise that you wrap your dog in your jacket and/or loop a leash around its nose as a makeshift muzzle.  That won’t be easy, either.  If you’re hunting or hiking alone, these situations can be especially challenging.

But here’s the good news: The kind of traps used for coyotes, and even for wolves, probably won’t crush your dog’s leg and do serious damage.  Depending on the size of your dog, the trap’s jaws may not even break its skin.  These traps are designed that way, often with a built-in gap or rubber cushions on their jaws.  In fact, when government trappers catch wolves for radio-collaring, they use the same trap they’d use for lethal control measures.  The only difference is in what happens next when they check their traps.  Most wolves can be safely released from these traps with no injuries whatsoever.  With luck, and with a little preparation and know-how, so can your dog.

For more details, here’s a pamphlet from Alaska DFG: trap_safety_for_pet_owners.  Better yet, follow the link in the next paragraph to see a great five-part video tutorial with Carter Niemeyer, author of Wolfer: A Memoir.  He’s a wolf advocate and retired USDA Wildlife Services trapper who really knows his stuff.  He’s spent a lifetime handling traps; notice how confidently he demonstrates the grip of a wolf trap by letting one close on his gloved hand.  (Kids, don’t try this at home.)  But note, too, how even someone with his skills and experience has trouble releasing the coil-spring and conibear traps.  And in these videos he’s not simultaneously dealing with a frightened, struggling dog.

If you hike or hunt with a dog in wolf country, these videos are well worth watching.  Click here to see Part One; as you watch each segment, you’ll see a link to the next one in the upper-right corner of your screen.

Stay safe out there.  And if your dog does step in a trap, don’t panic.  It will panic enough for both of you.  Be your dog’s calm, reassuring human, and things will probably turn out OK.

© 2014 Al Cambronne, top photo courtesy Wikipedia


Urban Kangaroos, Urban Deer, and Finding a Balance

Last night I watched a fascinating episode of the PBS show Nature.  It was titled “Kangaroo Mob.”  Apparently that’s what groups of them are actually called—not herds, mobs.  The episode told of how frustrated Australians are trying to cope with exploding kangaroo populations in and around Canberra.  Only a decade ago, there were a few hundred.  Today there are tens of thousands.

Out beyond the city limits, drought and skyrocketing kangaroo populations have caused ecological devastation and left the landscape denuded of vegetation.  As hungry, thirsty kangaroos invade the suburbs, the citizens of Canberra are coping with hundreds of car crashes, increasing damage to landscaping and natural vegetation, and incredible hordes of kangaroos that are just generally making a nuisance of themselves.  In several recent incidents, they’ve attacked people and pets with no apparent provocation.  As sometimes happens with deer here in America, a few confused ‘roos have even crashed through windows and into suburban homes. 

Local officials have reluctantly decided to stage a cull.  Although most Canberrans support it as a necessary step, a few have donned kangaroo masks and staged angry protests.  Two wildlife biologists we follow during the program are tracking radio-collared kangaroos in the hopes of learning more about their habits and movement patterns.  Meanwhile, we also meet a couple who are working hard to rescue kangaroos that have been injured or orphaned.

Elsewhere, not far from Canberra, overabundant kangaroos have sometimes outmatched the land’s carrying capacity and starved in large numbers.  In one notable 2009 example, the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) chastised the Defence Department for not holding a cull on a nearby military base.  After mowing the base’s threatened grassland preserves and leaving the ground pretty much bare, an estimated 5,000 kangaroos starved that summer.

For me, the Kangaroo Mob story was especially fascinating because of its obvious parallels with overabundant urban and suburban deer here in North America.  In Deerland, I plan to include an entire chapter on the topic.  Its working title: “The Invasion of the Suburban Cervids.”  In some ways, deer in Connecticut aren’t all that different from kangaroos in Canberra.

Australia actually has deer problems of its own; it has six different types of deer, all of which are non-native invasives.  In addition to kangaroos and deer, Australian hunters can also pursue feral cattle, goats, and camels.  Which is probably a good thing, since most of these animals have at various times and places reached outrageous population levels that caused serious problems for both humans and the natural environment. 

The camels are quite large; I suppose if a hunter were to shoot one in rugged terrain that could only be reached on foot, it would be a lot of work to hump it out.  Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.  Actually, though, feral camels are no joke.  Australia currently has over a million, and that number could double by the end of the decade.  In large parts of the country, they’re now causing serious environmental damage. 

Australians have learned to take their invasive species seriously.  The rabbit is probably the one animal that has caused the most damage there.  Today the ownership of live rabbits is regulated in most of the country, and Queensland recently raised its fine for the possession of a single pet rabbit from $3,750 to $30,000.

Meanwhile, back here in North America…  Deer are not, strictly speaking, an invasive species.  They were here first.  But they sure can be invasive.  As I research Deerland, I’ve been talking with experts and learning a lot about the lethal and nonlethal control strategies being used when deer invade our cities and suburbs.  I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  The solutions aren’t simple, and implementing them isn’t always easy.  But sometimes doing nothing is not a option, and sometimes letting nature take its course is no kindness. 

Or, as one ecologist recently told me, “Just because you’re not shooting them doesn’t mean you’re not killing them.”  Suffering.  Compassion.  Kangaroos.  Deer.  Birds.  Trees.  Sedges.  Ferns.  Humans.  It’s complicated.

© 2012 Al Cambronne

Your Christmas Swan

“We’re having something a little different this year for Thanksgiving.  Instead of a turkey, we’re having a swan.  You get more stuffing.”

–George Carlin

What a bird!  I love swans.  And I don’t mean for dinner at Thanksgiving or Christmas. 

A century ago, people did eat them and shoot them for feathers.  When viewed rationally, I suppose it’s just an oversized goose with a slightly longer neck.  Indeed, there would be a lot of meat on one.  The wing feathers might have looked nice in a hat, and a swandown sleeping bag would be at least as warm as a goosedown bag.  But still…

The other day I managed to get this shot of a cold swan.  And no, this has nothing to do with Cold Duck, the bargain brand of sparkling wine.  You’re looking at one of several trumpeter swans that overwinter in my neighborhood.  They hang out on certain stretches of river that stay open all winter, even when it’s below zero. 

(The night after I took this photo, the temperature dropped to -22 F.  No matter how much down you have on your chest, that’s cold.)

Sorry for the grainy spy photo; there wasn’t much cover, and this bird became nervous when I was still a couple hundred yards away.  And even if it would have allowed me to approach more closely, I’d have been crawling a long distance on very thin ice.

I’d hoped for a close-in shot of a white swan on black water, pinkly luminous in the late-afternoon sunset.  Visitors to my blog would have been very impressed.  Somehow, however, I only get opportunities like that when I’m not carrying a camera. 

I thought about making another trip or two; I can sometimes be persistent.  But then I decided it wasn’t worth making this bird, or some other swans, nervous enough to fly off to the next convenient open water.  That’s a couple miles away, even as the swan flies.  Better for these birds to burn no more calories than necessary.  More cold nights are coming, and spring is months away.

In the spring, pairs will disperse to secluded nesting sites in isolated marshes and small lakes.  For most of the summer, they’ll make themselves scarce. 

And then fall arrives…  This particular swan must have acquired its numbered yellow collar in early September; that could even be part of the reason it wouldn’t let me get closer.  Maybe it recognized me.

Since moving to this area, I’ve been fortunate enough to get in on a couple of September swan roundups.  This involves a spotter plane and a dozen or so volunteers in canoes and kayaks.  Sometimes the mix includes a small fishing boat with an outboard; other times the swans’ nesting site is in a marsh too shallow, weedy, or inaccessible for anything but canoes or kayaks.

If we can, we capture all the young swans the pair has raised this year—cygnets, they’re called.  We capture them one at a time, and then later release them simultaneously.  But first, biologists weigh the birds, band them, take a blood sample, and give them a numbered neck collar so they can later be identified from a distance.  Then, after we release the birds, it’s time to load up and head to the next nesting area.  Usually we hit about four different marshes in one long day.

I’ve had to miss the last couple roundups.  I hope I get to join in again next September.  By then the cygnets are nearly grown, but not yet able to fly well.  (In theory, at least.  A few of them can already fly just fine, thank you.)  At this point, they’re already at least half again as large as a Canada goose.

Swan roundups are one of the rare times I can put my canoe racing background to practical use.  It’s also a rare opportunity to help chase down, net, and wrestle with a member of an endangered species—and yet somehow not get in serious trouble with the law.  It’s all in the name of science; we’re doing our part to help trumpeters recover from the brink of extinction.  

By the way…  The best part of all is when we simultaneously release three or four cygnet siblings and watch them flap awkwardly across the surface of the water to rejoin their distraught parents.  And yes, nervous or agitated trumpeter swans do sound like someone blowing on a trumpet.  Someone, that is, who doesn’t know how to play the trumpet very well.

So there’s your Christmas swan story.  And with that…

Merry Christmas, and to all a good, warm night!