Anne McKinsey and her dog, Clara, take a break during a hike in Corinth in October. Photo courtesy of Anne McKinsey

In the midafternoon of Dec. 20, while some people were tying up work ahead of the long holiday, and others were shopping for presents, Anne McKinsey was trudging about half a mile through the snow, trying to get her dog to the veterinarian.

McKinsey and her 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog, Clara, had been walking along one of their usual trails, not far from their home in East Corinth, when McKinsey heard her pet yip in pain.

She found Clara’s neck caught between two hinged metal bars, a device known as a conibear trap, which was set about 50 feet from the wooded trail.

She was able to remove the trap from a makeshift enclosure at the base of a tree. But she couldn’t unlock the trap, so McKinsey carried her 30-pound dog back to the car with the 5-pound contraption around its neck.

“I was talking to her the whole time: ‘Clara, stay with me. Stay with me, girl,’” said McKinsey, who’s 65. “By the time I got her back to the car, she was dead.”

Maj. Sean Fowler, deputy chief of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s warden services division, said Wednesday that the state has documented 13 cases so far this year of pets being caught in traps, with at least one resulting in death. 

A 2019 state law requires trappers to tell the department if they incidentally trap dogs or cats.

McKinsey reported Clara’s fatal injury to the department. She said a game warden who investigated found that the trap was likely illegal, because the device didn’t have the required tag, its size could have trapped an animal that was not in season, and it was placed on private land without the owner’s permission.

Fish & Wildlife declined to comment on the case, saying it’s under active investigation.

Fowler said department data show it’s more common for pets to get caught in foothold traps, which closes on an animal’s foot when it steps on a trigger mechanism, than in a body-gripping trap, which strikes the head, neck or body such as in Clara’s case.

“Rarely in a foot trap like that is the animal killed,” he said; rather, it could come away with superficial injuries or even uninjured.

Fowler said trapping violations are misdemeanor criminal offenses. A conviction could bring the loss of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges, along with fines.

He said trappers are required to undergo education before getting a trapping license. If they plan to trap on private property, they’re supposed to get the landowner’s permission and say approximately where they intend to place the traps. 

On state-owned lands, excluding areas like wildlife refuges, permission is implied.  

The death of McKinsey’s dog is renewing calls from animal advocates to put more restrictions on trapping in Vermont.

Protect Our Wildlife, a statewide wildlife protection organization, said it’s aware of an upcoming bill that would limit trapping to the control of wild animals that are causing damage to property.

The organization’s president, Brenna Galdenzi, said traps indiscriminately catch animals, including endangered species that help maintain biodiversity.

“There are people who are concerned about making sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect or that we’re not introducing additional dangers to protected species,” she said.

Galdenzi said the legislature is the “only hope” of animal welfare advocates, because their yearslong discussions with the Fish & Wildlife Department haven’t yielded the change they’ve wanted. 

VTDigger was unable to reach the Vermont House member who Protect Our Wildlife believes will sponsor a bill that would add restrictions to trapping in the state.

Clara was a 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog that her owner adopted from an animal rescue organization in September, the same month this photo was taken. Photo courtesy of Anne McKinsey

On Tuesday, the one-week anniversary of Clara’s death, McKinsey returned to the area where her dog was fatally injured. She continued looking for traps, hoping she could help prevent a similar tragedy involving another pet.

McKinsey hopes the state will ban trapping; short of that, she said officials should increase public awareness about trapping as well as require trappers to post signs, warning people of traps around them.

“It wouldn’t do anything for wildlife, but it would help people with their dogs,” she said.

McKinsey adopted Clara from an animal rescue organization in September because she was looking for a companion. She’d been living alone since her other Shetland sheepdog, Daisy, died in the spring.

“It really got lonely,” McKinsey said. “Clara, she was a great girl, very smart and very together. … Loved her, you know, even in just the short three months I had her.”

VTDigger's southern Vermont and substance use disorder reporter.