Commentary

David Kelley: Recreational trapping is the essence of unnecessary suffering

This commentary is by David Kelley of Craftsbury Common, who is on the board of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition. 

When I was young, everyone in my family hunted and fished. In fact, when I was young, it seemed like everyone in Vermont hunted and fished. 

At Otter Valley, where I went to high school, absenteeism shot up during deer season. Going to deer camp was a rite of passage for most teenage boys. Almost all of my neighbors hunted and fished.

On the other hand, I never knew a single person who trapped until years later, when I moved to Montana. In Montana, I occasionally worked with a neighbor who claimed to be a direct descendant of Kit Carson, and who was a trapper. In Montana, I got to see trapping up close and personal. It wasn’t pretty.

Today the human-wildlife relationship is undergoing significant changes. Climate change, disease, shifting cultural values, shrinking habitat, declining biodiversity, and declining numbers of hunters and fishermen are all compelling us to rethink our relationship with wilderness and wildlife. The value of wilderness, our interdependence with wildlife, and the importance of ethics in that relationship are all coming into sharper focus.

Those most fearful of change have begun to defend recreational trapping by equating trapping and hunting. From time to time, even spokespeople for Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department use this canard. 

It is a false narrative used to avoid engaging directly in a debate about leghold and body-crushing traps that today are being used by a small handful of people for fun and recreation. Not inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals has always been the 11th Commandment of most hunters. Recreational trapping is just the opposite. It is the essence of unnecessary suffering.

Hunting is strictly regulated and hunters are generally penalized for shooting the wrong species. We have a season, we have a bag limit, and we are not allowed to bait animals. Hunters don’t leave their guns unattended and ready to shoot. In Montana, it is even illegal to leave a fishing pole unattended. 

On the other hand, trappers can set and leave as many leghold and body-crushing traps as they want. 

A hunter knows what he is shooting at. A hunter is there to immediately dress and retrieve the animal he kills. A trapper doesn’t know what animal he’s going to trap — a domestic pet, an endangered or threatened species, an eagle, an English setter, or a Canadian lynx. If a hunter shoots a deer, turkey, partridge or rabbit, it is invariably used as food. A trapped fox, coyote or bobcat is almost never eaten. In fact, even their fur has little value today. In most cases, trapping is the very definition of wanton waste.


A skilled hunter kills with care and respect for their prey. A quick kill that avoids unnecessary suffering of the life we are taking for food is a hunter’s preeminent purpose. 

The mechanics and equipment used by trappers is sadistic. Talk about “best management practices” or “padded traps” is like putting lipstick on a pig. Trappers leave animals crippled without food or water. They leave wildlife defenseless against all of the elements and all of the predators that might be a threat in the wild. 

The truth of the matter is that most trappers never use padded traps and many honor “best management practices” only in the breach. In fact, evidence of their real practices can be found all over Facebook and YouTube — despite admonitions from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in its Furbearer Newsletter to be careful of such posts on social media, because those posts might offend someone. And they offend people with good reason, I might add.

Hunting and fishing are constitutionally protected in Vermont. Nobody is going to take those rights away. As we confront change and as we consider a new ethic in relation to wildlife, there are some, even in the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, who react like Chicken Little. Their mantra is always how the consequences of change are to be feared. The sky will fall. The earth will stop spinning. They’ll take away our guns. 

Instead of engaging in a debate on the merits of trapping, there is a well-honed response: “They are ‘anti-hunting.’” As we carry these conversations and the debate forward, I urge you to listen to those childlike tantrums with a dose of skepticism.

I don’t hunt much anymore, but I still fish every chance I get. And I am very much pro-hunting. As I think about the shifts in the human-wildlife relationship taking place in Vermont today, I can’t help but think about women’s suffrage and gay marriage. Change is somehow frightening for many. When the ground is shifting beneath our feet, it can get scary. But it is part of the human journey. It is how we get better. 

I think often of a poem Robert Kennedy used to quote: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use. … Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.”  

As we proceed with this debate, toward a new human-wildlife relationship, be wary of Chicken Littles. History never moves forward in a straight line. It zigs and zags. But whether it is medicine, government, travel or communications, by embracing change we make progress. So let us have a vigorous, and honest, debate and in that way seek a newer, better world for ourselves and Vermont’s wildlife.  


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