The afternoon hike had started off like any other. My two dogs and I headed out our normal route that we hike almost daily down a power line trail into a wetlands area with very well-established ATV trails adjacent to my subdivision.
We were about three-quarters of a mile from our home when my young Lab, Bowie, began screaming in pain. About 8 feet off of the trail, he had stepped in a foothold trap. The trap had knife-like metal protrusions making “jaws” that were crushing Bowie’s paw.
I tried to release the trap, but Bowie was in so much pain and was so distraught that it made handling the trap safely impossible. He was in a frenzy, screaming and trying to bite the trap off of his foot. Due to the aggressiveness of the trap, Bowie’s injuries quickly worsened. Within a few minutes, blood covered the snow around us, streaming from his injured foot and his mouth.
After an extremely traumatic episode, some amazing people came to our aid and we were able to get Bowie home safely. It took two adults holding him down and a third releasing the trap to set him free. An incredible gentleman carried Bowie out of the swamp on his shoulders, as Bowie was too injured to walk the three-quarters of a mile home.
Upon researching trapping in Alaska, I learned that not only was the trap that Bowie was caught in legal, but that it is legal to set traps in most areas. Traps can literally be set on trails, covered with snow and hidden, and be legal. Traps can be set 2 feet off of most established hiking trails in recreational areas and be legal. Snares, foothold traps and body-crushing traps can all legally be set near many neighborhoods and in most parks.
Not only can traps be set just about anywhere people recreate and near homes, Alaska also does not require trappers to check traps within a certain time frame. This means that a dog caught in a foothold trap could be there until it dies of its injuries or dehydration. If someone releases a dog from a trap, they are technically breaking the law and could be cited or sued for tampering with a trapline. Similarity, a coyote could legally be left in a foothold trap for six days and be suffering an excruciating and slow death, but a passer-by’s only legal option is to leave the animal without intervening; releasing or putting the animal down is illegal. The state of Alaska also does not require trappers to number their traps, so if an individual leaves traps set illegally through the summer, there may be no way to identify that individual and hold them accountable.
In the case of my dog being caught in a trap, I faced criticism via social media. If I was a responsible dog owner, people asked, why didn’t I have my dog on a leash? The trap was legal, my dog wasn’t because I didn’t have him on a leash; therefore, I was blamed entirely for the incident.
This criticism raised many questions for me. I am a nature lover who spends a great deal of time exploring the woods off-trail. One of my favorite pastimes is hunting for shed moose antlers. Bowie, who is an antler-hunting dog, will spend 20 hours per week off-trail in the woods with me looking for shed antlers in the spring. Hiking off-trail, a leash is not going to prevent my dogs, or me for that matter, from ending up in a trap. Is the community expected to never venture off trail from November through April, the span of trapping season? Further, since traps can legally be set right in the middle of a trail under snow, would walking my dogs on-leash and never venturing off trail guarantee that we won’t end up caught in a trap?
My concerns go beyond my beloved four-legged family. I sometimes take children into the woods on nature walks, exploring animal tracks, trees and helping them appreciate being in the outdoors. I’ve even taken children exploring the wetlands by my house within about an eighth of a mile of the area Bowie was caught. Are children not allowed to walk into the woods to check out rabbit tracks or look at an owl’s wingspan mark left in the snow because they may step on a trap? Can families go on nature walks and explore the woods safely even a half-mile from their homes?
Lack of trapping regulation is hurting communities. People have been traumatized by watching their beloved pets be injured or even die in front of them in traps, or by seeing game animals left to sit in traps and suffer for days on end near public trails when releasing the animal or performing a mercy killing would be illegal. Unethical trapping practices are having a very real impact on people’s ability to safely enjoy outdoor recreation.
Alaska families deserve safe outdoor recreational opportunities. To encourage the adoption of ethical trapping regulations, please reach out to your state representative.
Monika Swan is an outdoor recreation enthusiast and lifelong resident of the Mat-Su region.
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