Sunday, August 6, 2000

Cities are urged to ban traps
Bay Area residents say pets and children could accidentally step on body-crushing contraptions designed for wild animals


By Curtis L. Esquibel
Times Staff Writer

PINOLE -- The morning after an exhausting and fretful search for Michael, Marybeth Rymer came to a pet owner's most dreaded discovery.

The family cat of six years was dead. Michael's neck had been broken by a body-crushing trap intended for larger, wild animals.

"I'm appalled these traps were even put into use," said Rymer, a veterinarian who found Michael 20 yards from her Emeryville apartment in October. "They could easily break an adult's arm."

Now Rymer and others who have lost family pets to the traps are asking cities across the Bay Area to ban their use. They say the contraptions, which some ranchers and local trappers support, are inhumane and should not be set in residential areas because pets or children could accidentally step on them.

The traps are legal in California under certain circumstances, but cities and counties may outlaw their use. A dozen Bay Area residents and members of Voices For Pets, a Walnut Creek organization against animal cruelty, asked the Pinole City Council on Tuesday to ban the traps.

In response, Pinole leaders in the next month plan to write and adopt a citywide ordinance to make the traps illegal.

If approved, Pinole's ordinance would be a Bay Area first and could sway other cities and counties to follow, supporters say.

"Contra Costa is a good place to start primarily because of the countywide concern for wildlife, public safety and environment," said Camilla Fox, coordinator for the Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento. "By all means, we hope Pinole will set the precedent."

The traps Fox and others want to get rid of are the neck-snare and Conibear traps, two devices commonly used to catch badgers, possums, and raccoons.

Both traps have been banned for recreational or commercial use in California since voters approved the Wildlife Protection Act of 1998.

But there is a loophole, Fox said.

The initiative also says animal control businesses can legally use the Conibear and snare traps for nuisance control or to protect property. A third trap, the steel jaw leg hold, is always prohibited.

The traps under the most scrutiny are the Conibears, which have spring-loaded bars intended to crush an animal when they step on a trigger, sometimes killing instantly.

"You have no control over what steps in it and what gets killed," said Nicole Kozicki, a fish and game warden representing Contra Costa County. "They can kill an animal, any animal, very quickly."

One major problem with the animal trapping industry, Fox said, is no agency oversees trap use. While California Fish and Game issues the licenses, private trappers are not required to report deaths or captures of unintended animals, she said.

Kozicki said all too often those unintended targets are family pets. In Contra Costa and Alameda counties, a handful of companion animals have either been killed or injured by the traps in the past year.

The Gendron family of Danville lost Soccer, their cat of 12 years, in December after a neighbor having trouble with raccoons called Animal Damage Control, a Lafayette-based exterminator company.

One night after letting Soccer outside, Souix Gendron became worried when he did not return. The next day, they checked the neighbors' backyard and saw Soccer's body caught in a trap's jaws.

"It's sad enough it killed my cat, but being a mom, I'm also worried that a little kid could get crippled or maimed in that thing," Gendron said.

Fox said there are no documented cases of California children injured by the Conibear traps but there have been isolated incidents in other parts of the country.

"Often they are put near creeks where they're unmarked and people who live nearby aren't notified," Fox said. "This is a public health hazard."

County animal services and fish and game officials say they are aware of the recent deaths of domestic pets. All the cases appear to involve traps placed by Animal Damage Control, Kozicki said.

Most trappers will not use them because they do not want to be responsible for killing or injuring someone's pet, Kozicki said.

Dianne Schmerker, co-owner of Animal Damage Control, said Thursday that her company only uses the Conibear traps as a last resort. She said she would never intentionally catch pets.

"We tried for weeks and weeks and nothing happened," Schmerker said of the Danville job. "They were told we were using the traps and to keep their animals inside."

But she said non-kill traps do not work because when raccoons are captured once and released, they are too smart to go in twice. That is why the camouflaged Conibear traps are more effective, she said.

"There's not much else you can do," said Schmerker, noting that business has dropped since the Danville incident was publicized. "We just do what we can to solve people's problems without a great expense to them and their neighbors."