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Wildlife Trapping in Massachusetts


The MSPCA opposes the recreational use of body-gripping traps (e.g., snares, conibear traps, leghold/foothold traps), which have been outlawed in Massachusetts since the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) ballot initiative in 1996. These traps can cause immense suffering, not just to target animals but also to non-target wildlife and companion animals. However, every legislative session bills are filed to reverse the WPA, a measure that 64% of Massachusetts voters supported. These changes would effectively allow a return to the days of recreational trapping with these inhumane and indiscriminate devices, which we are working hard to prevent. 

There are many types of traps, some of which are more humane than others, but all of which are dangerous and cause some degree of suffering. The peer-reviewed paper Mammal trapping: a review of animal welfare standards of killing and restraining traps, for example, states: “across the literature, the majority of studies show a significant percentage of trapped individuals suffering major injuries” and concludes that “many of the practices commonly used to trap mammals cannot be considered humane” (Iossa, Soulsbury & Harris, Animal Welfare, 2007). Thus, achieving peaceful coexistence with our wildlife without the use of traps is the ultimate goal.

Though the WPA permits the use of body-gripping or “Conibear” traps for the trapping of beaver and muskrat, it does so only when there is an immediate threat to human health and safety and under a valid emergency permit issued by a municipal Board of Health.

Because trapping is not a long-term solution to beaver/muskrat flooding or a beaver/muskrat overpopulation, and also because even so-called “quick-kill” Conibear traps can cause immense and indiscriminate suffering, the MSPCA encourages communities to instead employ one of the more cost-effective and long term flow device options that are readily available in order to resolve beaver conflicts.

Leghold/Foothold Traps

The MSPCA opposes the use of the steel-jaw leghold (sometimes called foothold) traps and padded leghold traps for two primary reasons:

  1. These traps, even with “padded” or off-set jaws, are inhumane. Leghold traps inflict bone fractures, maiming, hemorrhaging, lacerations, and self-mutilation, or animals may die from exertion, predation or environmental factors.
  2. These traps are indiscriminate. Non-target animals (including family pets) can and do become caught, maimed, and killed in these traps.

Consider the following quote from Dick Randall, former acting District Supervisor of the Animal Damage Control (ADC) program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

“Even though I was an experienced, professional trapper, my trap victims included non-target species such as bald and golden eagles, a variety of hawks and other birds, rabbits, sage grouse, pet dogs, deer, antelope, porcupines, sheep and calves. The leg-hold is inherently nonselective….my trapping records show that. For each target animal I trapped, about two unwanted individuals were caught.  Because of trap injuries, these non-target species had to be destroyed.” (California Department of Fish and Game. Draft Environmental Document Regarding Furbearing and Non-game Mammal Hunting and Trapping. February 2, 1996. pg. 81.)

Mr. Randall’s report goes on to state, “The Department has gathered information on the capture of non-target animals with leg-hold traps over the years. On a one-day (March 1987) survey of muskrat trap line in Colusa County, 26 muskrats were caught, compared to 19 non-target animals in the same trap line, consisting of between 150 and 200 traps. During another survey in Tehama County (1975) consisting of 6,713 trap nights, seven coyotes (target species) were caught, compared to 85 non-target species. And during a bobcat study in San Diego County involving 4,248 trap nights, 42 bobcats were trapped, compared to 91 non-target species, including coyote, greater roadrunner, raccoon, California ground squirrel, gray fox, cottontail, spotted skunk, and opossum.”

Both formal studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that for every target animal trapped, between two to three unwanted animals are caught, including family pets. The exact numbers are not known because trappers are not required to report non-target animals caught in their traps. (Painful Trapping Devices, ser. No. 94-18 Hearings before the Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. U. S. House of Representatives, Nov. 17-18, 1975; Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Technical Bulletin. Wildlife Series #8, November 1959, p. 167; Study by the Canadian Association for Humane Trapping, p. 23; Study in Great Britain, p. 167; Testimony of Dick Randall, p. 273.)

Lastly, it is important to know that claims that body-gripping traps have been improved in recent years and are now humane are false. In reality, improvements to leghold traps and snares have been limited; hard plastic on steel jaws and “stops” on the cables do not make these indiscriminate devices humane. Nor does offsetting the jaws or adjusting the pan tension on legholds. Animals still self-mutilate, suffer severe injuries, and lose limbs to traps while trying to escape these traps, and non-target animals are still caught.

Additionally, Conibear traps remain unchanged. Non-target animals rarely survive encounters with these traps and many experience added suffering before death when caught around the abdomen, rather than the neck. No amount of trapping experience can prevent an otter or mink from swimming through a Conibear trap set for an animal the size of a beaver.

The Conibear Trap

The Conibear trap is sometimes described as a quick-kill device, though it is, in fact, not reliably so. A study by the supervisor of the Fur Management Unit for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, which has been quoted in many publications, including Canadian Trapper, the official publication of the Ontario Trappers Association, states: “the most significant conclusion was that the standard Mohawk and Conibear traps did not kill the test animals instantly as originally supposed.” The study, in fact, showed that it took as long as 11 minutes and 15 seconds for a beaver to become unconscious before drowning in a 220 Conibear trap.

[Note: Traps that create death by drowning are considered inhumane due to the panic induced and the long period of pain until unconsciousness sets in. In addition to the above data, another study found the amount of time until unconsciousness to be 9 minutes for beaver and 4 minutes for muskrat (John W. Ludders et al., “Drowning Is Not Euthanasia,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 27 (1999): 666-70). In Massachusetts, in 2018, the law was clarified to state that drowning is illegal.]

This study goes on to conclude that: “…quick killing traps may not be the desirable future fur management tool. They may also not be the solutions to the humane trapping problem. In order for traps to kill instantly, tremendous energy is required, particularly in water sets. This often means expensive, heavy traps that are dangerous both to people and to their pets. Captures of non-target species is a further problem. For example, a 220 or 330 Conibear set for beaver in a channel can also catch muskrat, mink and otter.”

Given these findings, the Fur Management Unit’s supervisor stated, “to ensure public acceptance of trapping and to allow optimal production, selective harvesting must become the fur manager’s goal. This can only be achieved through the use of live-traps.”

Hancock/Bailey Box and Cage Traps

Hancock/Bailey box and cage traps are intended to catch a furbearing animal alive, and thus are the most humane option. There are several misconceptions, however, about these traps. Following are common claims and responses to help dispel any myths or misconceptions.

Claim: Conibear traps kill instantly, and thus are more humane than box/cage traps.

Response: Studies show the time to death or unconsciousness for a beaver in a Conibear trap can last more than 11 minutes. Further, changes to the Wildlife Protection Act made in July 2000 allow trappers to transport animals for the purposes of euthanasia so that beaver can be dispatched humanely via gunshot or COchamber.

Claim: Box/cage traps are more dangerous than the Conibear to trappers, children, and pets.


Claim: Box/cage traps leave trapped animals exposed to the elements for long periods of time.

Response: If trappers use the box and cage traps responsibly, the time in which the animal is caught in the trap should be short, reducing stress and attempts to escape.

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