It is always a learning experience to attend the public meetings of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and of their ruling body, the Commissioners. The meeting in Cody was important for The Cougar Fund from several perspectives-scientific, social and political. There were two main topics of interest for us. The report from biologist Zach Turnbull about the challenges he and his crew face as far as mitigating, forensically analyzing and confirming depredations of livestock by large native predators, and the decision, which we will concentrate on here, about Chapter Four Trapping Reform that we have been following closely in support of Wyoming Untrapped.
The recent modifications to Wyoming’s Trapping regulation give us pause to reflect on a consideration that is NEVER addressed by wildlife managers. Trapping is brutal. There is no ’nice’ face to put on the practice of snaring, confining or catching an animal in a vice, noose or cage. These small animals are then left for hours, even days, with no food or water at the mercy of the elements. The suffering endured comes to an end by bludgeoning, drowning or other violent means. The ironies surrounding trapping are truly astonishing: It is a commercial activity yet the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation states as one of its seven principles ‘the prohibition on commerce of dead wildlife’: It is widely recognized that trapping is favored by a predominantly conservative demographic. Consider then that the major markets from which trappers profit are in fact the communist regimes in Russia and Asia whose ideologies would seek to destroy the conservatism that is so willingly outfitting their armies with warm winter clothing! The primitive and unarguably cruel methods used in trapping would cause outrage if done on the once wild species we now call pets. Imagine if you will, the neighbor’s small dog or cat or the 4H rabbit in a foothold trap, or hanging from a neck snare in the yard next to yours, for however many days until the owner comes to batter it to death… It is hard to believe that the obvious challenges to our standards of compassionate treatment of all living things are compounded by the fact that trapping is indeed a legal ‘past?time’. Whenever decision makers refer to the ‘rights’ of trappers, we can be confident that is the ‘dead end’ to any discussion about the social implications of a practice. Inherently fascinating is the trappers’ own justification for what they do…..a common theme is that they are ‘doing a service’, somehow protecting the general populace from whatever mysterious consequence might befall us if trapping were to cease. Neither the administrative bodies who regulate trapping nor the trappers themselves will actually describe what this ‘service’ is.
There is also the complicated relationship between the general public and ‘animal rights’ advocates. Shockingly, the people who often advocate for kind and considerate treatment of non-human animals rely on inappropriate threats of violence and shaming towards their fellow human animals. Yes, it is extremely hard to understand the perspective of another person who views killing as a sport. Here is a wonderful quote by a Cougar Fund member “What makes a man want to kill for sport? There are women who do this also. THAT I really don’t understand. The ones who are to nurture, also kill. What makes someone want to kill anything? What makes someone wake up in the morning with the yearning to go out and kill something to make them feel powerful, or worthy?” (Thank you Janelle Peters Pitula) These are the questions that get to the heart of the issue. What is the difference in the psychology of those that kill for recreation and those that not onlyhave no desire to do this, but also find it incomprehensible.
Science is discovering more and more evidence of sentience in non-human animals, this is is the ability to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. This means that an animal suffers in much the same way that people do…pain, loss, fear, hunger, thirst. This was recognized by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham when he said about animals “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?”
And yet we continue to differentiate between animals as to the level of suffering allowed according to superficial categorization. Animals are everywhere-in nature, factory farms, entertainment, captivity, laboratories, homes, public service, and in many, many more facets of our lives. Society ignores suffering in the case of fur-bearing species subject to trapping, and marginalizes it for livestock who are protected only by three laws which allow them no more than 28 hours without a break during transportation, a ‘humane death’ and easily exploited definitions of confinement. Laboratory animals are still pretty much ‘under the radar’ when it comes to acceptable ways to treat them-hidden by the smoke screen of seemingly altruistic exploitation for the sake of humans, their ailments, their make-up or their soap powder. Lastly, there is slightly more accountability surrounding acceptable ways to treat those animals we call ‘pets’. While different states do not have consistent laws protecting companion animals there is an element of community watchdogging and non-governmental organization oversight that can catapult egregious cruelty into the social media stratosphere. Why, and on what basis do humans get to decide that it is OK to torture a pine martin or a fox, but not puppy or a kitten? When is an animal proprietary and when is it free, and how does this relate to the level of suffering we allow? Wildlife is held in the public trust for us all, yet a minority by virtue of a few dollars have bought the right to ‘ownership’ that plays out in ways that degrade the human capacity for empathy and compassion.
Although there are Agency personnel who acknowledge that there is room for improvement in the regulations governing wildlife, they too admonish us for referring to the capacity of an animal to suffer. On the surface this would appear to be similar to the ostrich hiding its head in the sand-just because you cannot see it doesn’t mean it is not happening. It actually has a much deeper and darker basis. Even though the Public Trust Doctrine of which the North American Model is a component, was designed to manage wildlife for everyone, it failed to include everyone in its financial model. Thus, at the foundational level American wildlife is funded by money raised almost entirely by killing. Just as death and taxes are the certainties of human existence, death and sustainable wildlife management is the huge tangle that underlies the monopoly enjoyed by hunters. The inability of non-hunting users to participate at a financial level is what prevents democracy from entering the picture.
Man is a predator, he- like the iconic carnivores we share our environment with-will kill another animal in order to eat and survive. The dance of predator and prey is in time with the rhythm of nature. Where we can explore opportunities for positive change is to be honest about the fact that man is the only animal that chooses to kill simply for pleasure, that is able to ignore the suffering of the animals he targets and who bases his/her own self worth on the ability to kill and display a trophy. Man can also choose to STOP elevating the act of recreational killing as an acceptable measurement of his prowess. We hope society will learn to celebrate the value of animals alive.