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Voters in One California County Consider Ban on Steel-Jaw Traps

August 11, 1988

NEVADA CITY, Calif. (AP) _ The fur is flying in Nevada County over a November ballot proposal to ban the use of steel-jaw leg traps, the first time that voters in California will have a say on the issue.

Those favoring the ban say the traps, which are used to catch everything from raccoons and weasels to foxes and coyotes, cause their prey unnecessary suffering and are indiscriminate, posing a hazard to humans, their pets and non-target animals.

Advocates, including ranchers and government predator control experts, say the traps are vital in their struggle to protect livestock, crops and property. The traps also help control outbreaks of rabies and other animal- carried diseases, they say.

Sixty-six countries have banned the traps, and their use is restricted in four states. Other California communities have outlawed them, although the November initiative in the rural, mountainous county northeast of Sacramento is the first time voters in any of California’s 58 counties will decide the issue.

San Francisco has had a ban since 1977, and two years ago the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Santa Cruz waged a successful campaign to get the Board of Supervisors to outlaw steel-jaw traps in the county. Santa Clara County supervisors passed a similar ordinance in April.

Steel-jaw leg traps are triggered when pressure is applied to a pad, snapping the U-shaped, spring-operated, toothless jaws closed. The traps are available in a range of sizes for different animals. The most powerful bear traps were outlawed in California years ago because ″they used to find too many hunters trapped in them,″ said Art Johnston, chairman of Citizens for a Healthful and Safe Environment, or CHASE, which favors the ban.

Debate has been charged, with proponents of the ban trying to make their case using photographs of maimed pets, mangled animals and three-legged survivors who chewed off a paw in their desperate escapes. Those who say the traps are necessary complain they are helpless to counter the emotional appeals.

″The thing actually has taken on all of the intensity of a religious controversy, with people rabidly for it and people rabidly against it,″ Johnston, who joined the fray seven months ago, said recently.

″We’re not saying you can’t trap anymore or you can’t control predators. We’re just saying use a trap that if a kid gets caught in it, they can get out. That’s all we’re saying.″

David Lester, a federal trapper who contracts with Nevada County to do predator control by request on about 30,000 acres, says his job is misunderstood.

″There’s responsible people on both sides, and then there’s radicals on both sides. ... It’s frustrating,″ said Lester, who was born and raised in the county and whose uncle was the county trapper before him. ″I’ve read in the paper where I’ve been called a moron for setting these traps. I feel I’m as much a part of nature as that blade of grass or the coyote.″

The county traps - a maximum of 50 at any time - are set off trails to protect people, he said. Commercial fur trapping is done during the winter when fewer people are outside, he said.

Trappers are required by law to check their traps daily, but enforcement is non-existent and many animals die of starvation or exposure, critics say.

″It just has no place in a civilized society, especially because there are so many alternatives,″ said Judy Cassada, director of education for the Santa Cruz chapter of the SPCA.

Instead of the steel traps, ranchers should use fencing, shepherding and guard dogs, the ban’s proponents say.

Ron Tapp is one of the initiative’s supporters. He couldn’t walk for two weeks after he stepped in a coyote-sized trap while backpacking along the Feather River, he said.

The real problem, those who favor the initiative say, is that authorities see a successful crackdown on the use of steel-jaw traps as a major erosion of their powers that could trigger further victories by animal rights’ activists who oppose wildlife management and recreational hunting, trapping and fishing.

″They don’t want to be regulated ... because they never have been regulated,″ says Tanja Keogh, a co-coordinator of CHASE. ″It’s the old Wild West mentality. ... They’re afraid if we win, the next step is we’ll be taking away their guns.″