2014-05-04

Why I want to be a Trapper

I never thought I would say this, but I'm taking a trapper's education class, so I can get a trapping license. That's right, animal trapping. The purpose of this article is mostly to try and explain the philosophy that brought me here. I want to give people an opportunity to see another perspective that is getting rarer and rarer, and an opportunity to understand - especially those in more urban environs.

I'm not trying to defend a view, or convince anyone of anything, I just want to explain.

Childhood

My generation was raised with the basic idea that wearing fur was wrong. So, getting to this place philosophically has been a long and circuitous trip for me. Organizations like the Humane Society and PETA ruled the discourse and the culture I was raised in. Breaking out of that discourse has been a long process.

I had a strong emotional reaction just to an image like the one below... a basic 1.5 coil-spring foothold trap. A trap that causes no more than bruising (Note: this one is unmodified. It needs a lot of filing down sharp edges, rusting, staining, waxing, a new chain attachment point, a pile of swivels, and maybe a spring on the chain). I'd guess a lot of people have that extremely negative gut reaction. Then I handled one for an hour...

Bla

I had one thing many people don't though these days. I was raised on a homestead, and we raised goats for milk. When we raised goats we sold the kids to families that would stop by near holidays. I understood back then that these kids were eaten. We also raised pigs for food, who supplied the bulk of the meat we ate. We raised chickens for the eggs, and of course there were too many roosters, so sometimes we'd eat those. We had geese to help guard the other animals and sometimes we would end up with too many and eat some of them as well.

I should note that my dad is the sort of person who can't sleep for a couple of weeks after he shoots a raccoon, which he'll only shoot if he has to because it's already taken a lot of chickens. Foxes scare off, and we never had to kill them, but raccoons do not.

I was also familiar with death. Animals die sometimes. They get old, they loose the ability to walk, they get sick, etc. It happens, and it's sad every time. My parents didn't shove it in my face by any means. Dad would try and do in old/sick animals, when he had to, while I wasn't around... but it was still there, and I understood what was going on.

And... I felt bad for living. I felt that merely by my existing I was a problem. I was making the world worse. For many years I felt significant guilt about my existence itself.

Farming practicies

Anyway, after college Jess and I were getting very interested in farming and homesteading. We started researching how to do it. Green manuring just doesn't work that well, animal feces just works WAY better for growing crops. A pig's most valuable product to a homesteader is not bacon, but feces. Pig poop is one of the worlds best fertilizers. Better yet, pigs can be fed mostly on scraps. It gets even better though. After you dig up your tuber crops you can let pigs run on the field and they will til it for you, while turning the tubers and roots you couldn't get out of the ground into perfect fertilizer! Bacon and ham is just a bonus. Cows are similar, cow poop is incredible stuff. Milk is wonderful.

As we considered all this it started to sink in that animals are part of the cycle. It's very very difficult to remove animals from the natural cycle and still keep a healthy farm. I also started reading more about industrial processes and realizing just how AWEFUL they are. How bad for the animals, the environment, and even the resulting products they are. We take the pig poop, the pigs most valuable product, and throw it aside as waste, then generate fertilizer on the side. Both eventually end up in the river.

Primitive Skills and History.

Well, on our search we got more and more interested in more primitive ways to live off the land. Inevitably we eventually discovered the book "tending the wild" (offered in our store actually). I started reading about the land historically, and how it was managed 5000 and 10000 years ago within the US. I then read 1491 and found even more. Indians were not such pure hunter-gatherers as many believe... they were low intensity farmers. Rather than planting things they encouraged what they wanted, picking in ways that helped the plants they wanted, burning back, cutting etc. those that were less helpful, and encouraging things to grow in a way useful to Natives. Rather than directly feeding animals like a farmer the left them loose, but they managed the animal populations and their forage.

They did this so much in fact, that many of the plants we think of as "wild" in fact do not survive well unless they are tended, or even require regular harvesting for health. Sedge is a classic example in the west used for baskets, another one is oak which were carefully pruned, fertilized, burned beneath, and likely even planted.

To be clear, it wasn't a panacea. There's a lot of debate about this, but there's definitely evidence that they screwed up. And American Indians are anything but one culture, there are many. In fact, most were moving quickly towards farming practices around the time that their populations were destroyed by western diseases.

As I read about this I realized that I wanted this relationship with the land. I wanted to try and relearn some of what they knew, to expand on it, and figure out how to encourage this using, but not abusing, relationship with the land in modern times. I realized that I could make things better by being a human within this system, not just worse. I could actually help.

I blame John Muir for the still dominant view towards environmentalism. He didn't like the natives, he felt cheated by their wearing of modern clothing, and their land management practices. They didn't fit the noble savage image he wanted. He believed in the concept of "wilderness" and impressed it upon the U.S. extremely effectively. To be clear, it's a good thing he did, we wouldn't even have the National Park system if it wasn't for him and his friends, but he also did a dis-service. He convinced many that we have to live seperate from our environment. That it is a thing to protect and go visit.

A lot of native cultures had terms for wilderness... and they were not positive terms. They had strong negative connotations. This is non-productive land, non-cultivated. Land that isn't particularly healthy or fruitful.

In other words... the land in the U.S. is unhealthy not just because human's ruined it, but because human's ARE part of the ecosystem themselves, and they removed themselves. It's just like removing wolves from Yellowstone, the river's started meandering, the fields became overgrazed (there's much research on this). Human's too are part of the ecosystem, and without it the things that we co-evolved with don't flourish.

The more you study these things, the more you realize that we are part of the equation, and just like sedge, or trees, we can make things healthier by harvesting *some*. Often not the ones people want to harvest, you have to pay very very close attention, and be very careful, but it can be done. Now let me be clear, there are a lot of bogus arguments thrown out by pro-hunting folks. It can't be true that we have to kill the deer to keep them healthy, AND have to kill the mountain lion for the deer population. Similarly killing prime bucks being good for the herd is bunk from what I can tell. On the other hand, taking weaker does and bucks has been repeatedly shown to have a benificial effect on the herds - and consequentially on everything else. Put your emotions aside and do the research: biological, ecological and historical. Toss away arguments that are simply inconsistent or nonsensical, but look with the critical eye of a scientist and see where you end up.

Animal Rights

Okay, all of that is interesting, but you're killing animals? And fuzzy cute ones even?
Lets bring this back to axioms. There are two common angles to take on ethics in relation to animals. One focuses on the population, the other on the individual. I think it's important to address both. So far we've been talking about the population. But what about *this* animal, the one I'm looking in the eye down the shaft of my arrow. I'm going to hurt it, kill it if I don't screw up (and if I don't think I will kill it I better not take the shot).
Some people draw a simple line... no. Killing the animal is wrong. Some even believe more wrong that killing a human. Other's say sure... it's just a deer, it's stupid anyway. They'll claim a lobster can't actually feel pain, and thus ignore the question entirely. There are other arguments of course, but I'll stop there for now.
I have a suspicion frequently that the first view is an extension of my philosophy as a child. That by existing I caused pain and made the world worse, that all human's do. But not always, I think it's possible and reasonable to simply have "don't kill animals" as an axiom. That animals have rights as human's do. I don't have that axiom, but I respect those who do. The second I suspect is often laziness really, the unwillingness or inability to think through actions in the first place. But again, some come to this conclusion after a lot of deep thought and knowledge.
In college I heard Eustace Conway, the author of the Last American Mountain Man, speak. He tried to explain his relationship with the deer; that he revered them, that they fed him, that he loved them and cared for them deeply on a personal level, every animal. He also seemed massively frustrated at his inability to communicate this, to communicate the emotions of caring for a deer, and killing the deer, and wearing the deer. The vegetarians in the room just looked disgusted. He tried to explain how disgusted he was that people used pulped live trees to wipe their butts without stopping to consider that fact. He tried to explain that he liked toilet-paper too, but being used to using leaves he saw it as a luxury with a cost that one had to always have in mind. He tried to explain that he usually didn't pick a leaf for that purpose, he used dead ones from the ground instead, because it wasn't usually worth it. Leaves, while we're using tree trunks. I think he made a mark, but still most of the people in the room clearly didn't understand. I won't presume to be better at explaining than he. It's deeply spiritual and as difficult to explain as anything of that sort, but like other spiritual things minor changes there can have a huge impact on how we act. Best I can do is to ask you to withhold judgment until you've seen it and experienced at least some piece of it.

My moral beliefs

I am in the same camp as Eustace. I feel it is very important to honor an animals death. This is why I believe, morally speaking, in eating roadkill so it's death is not in vain. I believing using it is a way to thank it, and that keeping present in my mind the cost for what I am eating is important, both towards the individual and species it impacts, so that I do not take too much of something and I stay careful. This is as true for vegetables as for animals to me. But, I believe that it is also my job, as a human being, to take my place in the world and carefully, caringly, and humanely, to take life to feed mine... whether animal or plant, and to make the environment as a whole healthier in the process. I also think that a maybe higher cost I understand is better than a maybe lower-cost that I don't. When I kill by my own hand, a tree, a vegetable, or an animal, I know the cost and the tradeoff on a personal level. I can't know that as deeply for something I purchase. Even when I buy food from a farm that I go and visit for a day it's not the same.

This belief is why before I even considered getting my first hunting tag I learned to skin an animal out, to make bone tools, to process sinew, to cook the meat, and to tan the hide.

What trapping actually IS

Now, I was dubious when I started this class. I wasn't sure if even wanted to trap, but I wanted to learn and understand so I did it anyway. The deer hunter lines are what you hear most often, which as I noted earlier are often bunk. At least with the group I'm learning from, trapping is different. Trappers long ago screwed up and nearly eradicated all their favorite species. What many aren't aware of is that it's also trappers that have worked hardest to re-establish these species and carefully manage their populations such as to keep them healthy. Hunter's say this kind of thing all the time, and it's kindof true but more of a stretch.

Trappers here in Vermont work very closely with the state furbearer biologist. If they harvest a fisher, otter, or bobcat (particularly carefully managed species here), the entire carcass goes to fish and wildlife. Fish and Wildlife tests the heck out of these carcasses, how many babies did a female fisher have, or how much mercury is in this otter. All of this they trace back to maps of where the catches were made so they can track it. They keep an ongoing dialog going about where the animals are, and in what numbers, and with respect to that how many they need to take, or can take to maximize the populations health. That's the primary goal.

The trappers teaching my class have said that they will pull their fisher traps if they catch a female, because the population can't stand many females being removed. They never catch out an area, they'll only catch an animal in an area where they are plentiful.

One thing I was most surprised by is how humane foot-traps actually are. Live-catch foot-traps aren't toothed anymore, and haven't been for ages. When otters were reintroduced into 18 states, foothold traps were used for the catches. 2400 otter were carefully caught this way, by the trappers in the source state. They were held for a short time to check health, then transported and released in the other states. This program was probably the most successful re-introduction program ever.

Traps usually need to be modified so the chain is attached to the center-middle, and to add 3-5 swivels minimum. But, with these modifications, contrary to popular belief, the trap doesn't injure the animal. Trappers snap live-kill traps on their fingers all the time, it smarts and I don't recommend it, but it doesn't cause injury. I watched someone trip a small kill trap on their finger during our class, and even that just smarted a lot. You have to be careful with your sets and traps and everything else to not injure an animal, but the focus is always on keeping animals in "releasable" condition. Prior to the otter story I was dubious about this, but if it's good enough to re-establish a healthy otter population, it's pretty good.
Obviously you kill the animal eventually, if that's the goal. Your first line of defense against catching the wrong animal is careful placement of traps and selection of bait, second is careful tuning of traps so they won't trip on the wrong animals. When all this fails non-injury traps give a last ditch "shoot, wrong animal" opportunity to release something. They also make the animals last hours a lot more comfortable. This is why the two types of traps used are ones that keep an animal in full health, and those that kill instantly.

conclusion

So there you have it. I have a bow-hunting license, and I'm trying to get a trapping license so I can take part in the largest land management project possible, and hopefully make things better for all animals, even the humans. So I can make things with my own hands with materials I take with my own hands. So I can understand the costs, and appreciate the value, and thank those who made it possible. For now though I can't trap. First we need to have a stable location. If we have a stable location by August I'll have 2 months to scout prior to the season starting. I expect that if this happens I'll catch nothing, but I'm excited to start trying, to learn about these animals as much as possible, and to try and become more a part of our natural world again.

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