How Trapping Can Hurt Wildlife and Even Pets

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

animal trapping

Story at-a-glance -

  • Snares, steel-jaw traps and Conibear traps are just three types used around the U.S. for catching pests threatening pets, farm animals and wildlife, but using traps that are considered “humane” is important
  • Box traps are often used when a trapper intends to catch an unwanted animal and take it to another location before releasing it
  • The term “humane” in relation to traps is used only when there’s a sufficient level of care regarding the animal’s welfare
  • Veterinarians across the U.S. are in agreement that people should be cautious about using traps, and the arguments against trapping are for many different and very legitimate reasons

Of all the debates going on in various segments of society, it's interesting how there can be two sides to a story — pros and cons, if you will — and such may be the case in discussions about whether using traps for animals is ever a good idea.

It should be clarified, however, that completely aside from the moral or ethical questions surrounding trapping animals for their fur, veterinarians across the U.S. are in agreement that people should be cautious about using traps, and the arguments against trapping are for many different and very legitimate reasons.

First is the very real possibility that the animal or animals someone may be hoping to trap may not be the animal the trap actually catches." In many cases, farmers hoping to keep raccoons or foxes from getting the chickens may find their cat, dog or other pet inside the trap, not to mention wild animals they never intended to harm.

The Cape Wildlife Center,1 a nonprofit wildlife hospital and education center based in Barnstable, Massachusetts, used its social media site2 to share an example of a Virginia opossum that got its foot caught in a rat trap.

While its injuries were minimal, in part because it wasn't trapped for very long, it had to have surgery under anesthesia to have its wounded foot cleaned. This is a mild and recoverable injury; most trap related injuries cause far more pain and have much worse consequences.

Other than traps, another common way people attempt to catch unwanted animals is to use poison, which is meant to be lethal but sometimes is not. In such cases, animals being poisoned can end in horrible suffering.

Types of Animal Traps: The Bad and the Ugly

Zak Mertz, executive director of Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center, observes that hundreds of those "nontarget critters," from birds and squirrels to rats and mice, are treated every year at the Cape Cod-area facility after being injured by traps of many different designs, including glue traps and mechanical traps.

According to The Humane Society of the United States3 and the vast majority of veterinarians, glue traps are "cheap and cruel" because the trapped animal in adhered to an extremely board and in the process often kills them slowly. Further:

"Glue boards might seem like a safe and easy solution to pest problems but in fact, they are one of the cruelest and most dangerous. Responsible for more suffering than virtually any other wildlife control product on the market, they are readily available at grocery stores, home improvement and hardware stores and most major retailers, as well as over the Internet."4

There are many other types of traps for animals, however. As discussed, some are designed to be humane and others are designed for the express purpose of killing the victim unlucky enough to step inside.

Snares — These animal traps are inexpensive and very effective, easy to conceal in large numbers and they can even be made at home. It's essentially a loop on the end of a cord, but it could also be called a noose. "The more the animal tries to wriggle free, the more the noose tightens," Nationwide Animal Removal notes, and they're not considered humane:

"Animal cruelty groups actually showed that over forty percent of all animals captured in snare traps were animals (not) meant to have been caught at all. So, in just 60% of cases, the trapper catches what it actually wants to catch. When you think about it, that's not the highest success rate … In Michigan alone, the traps catching nontargets were only around 20%."5

Steel-jaw traps — These can legitimately be called nonselective, because when an unsuspecting animal walks into one, the steel clamps do significant damage and are intensely painful, yet it's the most common type of trap. They're spring-powered and potentially lethal to any animal it catches, as it can crush muscle, bone and ligaments.

Some animals have chewed off their own limb to break free, which explains why the Animal Welfare Institute6 notes that numerous animal associations and advocacy groups across the U.S. have condemned their use.

Leghold traps — The name explains the concept: when sprung, leghold traps encircle and tighten around limbs or other body parts. These are efficient for catching and holding small to medium-sized to very large animals to keep them from causing property damage or killing farm animals. Some proponents say they are used with the intent of taking the trapped animal to another location and letting them go.

Conibear traps — Also called a body-grip trap, these are comprised of two metal squares that "scissor" together to work rather like a large mouse trap, gripping the animal around its middle or its neck.

National Wildlife Removal makes no bones about the fact that while it's intended to kill, the "kill is very quick, and the result is usually less messy and more humane than many other types of trap."7 However, sometimes it seriously injures rather than killing the animal caught in it, which can present another situation when the animal is discovered.

Conibear traps come in three sizes: 5 by 5 inches, 7 by 7 inches, or 10 by 10 inches. The largest is for animals the size of a beaver or otter, while the smallest is used for animals relatively proportionate to a mink or muskrat. Besides noting that the use of these traps is illegal in some states, the site also explains:

"As with any other type of wild animal trap, Conibear traps come with their fair share of disadvantages. They may not work correctly, and they may capture the wrong kind of animal, particularly if the traps are used on the land. In fact, that's why you are not permitted in most states to use this kind of trap. You will put other animals, including household pets, at risk."8

Box traps — Also called "live traps," the design is for releasing the trapped animal without harming it. They're sometimes made of wood or plastic but can be made from wire mesh. The doors are often spring loaded; disadvantages include easy escape and advantages include the safety of the trapper when releasing the animal, so a plan for different scenarios is important, the National Wildlife Control Training Program9 notes.

If You Must Use an Animal Trap

Experts at Cape Wildlife, part of New England Wildlife Centers, pointed out to local Eyewitness News outlet that "If you use snap traps, please remember to check them frequently in case nontarget critters accidentally come across them."10

One of the biggest problems with rotating-jaw traps and neck-snapping snares is that so many animals are merely injured rather than killed quickly to avoid what is sometimes prolonged periods of excruciating pain. The traps may not be powerful enough, or inexperienced trappers may set them improperly, making them restraining devices rather than killing devices.

According to a study11 published in Animals in 2019, the checking times for traps and snares are either nonexistent or inadequate in most areas of North America, resulting in thousands of animals being tortured and experiencing a slow, painful death. Researchers suggested that because there are a wide variety of traps and trigger configurations, set traps should be monitored at least once every 24 hours, but preferably every 12 hours.

In urban areas, there's a far greater possibility that pets and nontarget animals could be victims of traps. The term "humane" is used only when there's a sufficient level of care regarding the animal's welfare, but there are many aspects some trappers may not consider. Checking traps relatively often can help prevent levels of inhumane cruelty to the animals trapped either intentionally or unintentionally:

"In 20% (two animals) of tests, poor welfare conditions may exceed these limits, likely by a few minutes only. In the context of this paper, poor animal welfare would relate to animals in pain while conscious, deprivation of water and food, increased heart rates and raised levels of corticosteroids ('stress hormones'), and incapability of the animals to cope with pain or discomfort."12

Alternatives to Trapping

Mertz conceded that to maintain public health, there's a place for rodent control. However, he adds, "Just do your research and select rodent control responsibly." And, there are measures you can take to keep problems from occurring in the first place, and that comes from simple prevention:

  • Secure your house, barns and garages by closing and locking doors
  • Patch holes in buildings and fences that might allow unwanted creatures inside
  • Keep a tight lid on trash and garbage containers or don't leave them out
  • Don't feed your pets outside, which draws critters in

The crew at Cape Wildlife even offer alternatives to trapping. One is to simply leave smaller animals alone, and in time, allowing the circle of life to naturally occur when they're eaten by larger animals.

As for the trapped opossum, Cape Wildlife's medical director, Priya Patel, says there are many misconceptions about them, and two common misconceptions may encourage you to allow them on your property.

One, they're the only marsupial in North America, but more importantly, they eat ticks, which can limit the diseases they carry. It's also very rare for marsupials to contract rabies, and they're not aggressive, so if you ignore them, they likely won't bother you.

In the case of the trapped opossum, a reader offered a great option for those "desperate enough to use snap traps" by placing them inside wire pet crates so that only rodents can be trapped rather than pets or larger wildlife being an unintended victim.