Shadows of an ancient calling

For trappers who 'harvest' their catch, death is the beginning

Roy MacGregor February 16 1981

Shadows of an ancient calling

For trappers who 'harvest' their catch, death is the beginning

Roy MacGregor February 16 1981

Shadows of an ancient calling

For trappers who 'harvest' their catch, death is the beginning


Roy MacGregor

They have been at it since dawn opened the first small wound on the eastern edge. Since then the day has poured through, bright and bitter, sharp winds scribbling in the light snow over the swamp. Beneath the snow there is thick ice, beneath the ice a foot, a hand, a large blue arm pulling hopelessly on frozen steel. The arm surfaces to grab an axe. Ken Lehmann calls on the awesome power that made him five times a Canadian Football League allstar lineman and shortly, with steam now rising from the wet forearms, the ice gives in to his blitz. The former Ottawa player’s partner, Ken Seabrook, drops into the hole, the sour swamp water rising to the chest of his rubber waders. A hard pull, a foggy burst of held breath, and the trap rises slowly from the water. Inside is a small beaver,

barely more than a kitten, its short life cancelled between the steel bars of a Conibear trap. But here, in the dense bush of eastern Ontario, there is no marking the passage of life: the men are busy and death is simply part of the work. For trappers, death is the beginning.

By afternoon, shirt-sleeves frozen solid, the trappers are headed home. They are wet; they are cold; their muscles are elastic from pushing, prying

snowmobiles free of dense drifts. The catch has been strapped to the machines. On the third snowmobile muskrats are cached randomly in various cubbyholes and along the windshield ledge, while two large, stiff beaver take up the space on the seat. Near the end of the long ride back there is a cross-country skier on the trail. She gives way to the machines, waving happily to the first, realizing fact with the second and then dropping both wave and the corners of her mouth with the passage of the third wildlife hearse. The trappers pass by slowly, the death parade reflected in her mirrored sunglasses, their image chasing them home.

I wish I was a trapper I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas And find out how she felt

—NEIL YOUNG, Pocahontas

If it were beaver, say, last year’s top grade, Young’s night would cost him $158,000—the price a thousand such pelts would have brought at the Ontario Trappers’ Association auction in North Bay. For the December sale 264,095 animals died, the number only slightly less overpowering than the smell of a warehouse packed solid with beaver, muskrat, fox, lynx, mink, fisher, otter, raccoon, squirrel, bear and even skunk. Last season, $32.5 million worth of wild pelts were sold here, a record, and this year is already running ahead of that pace. The air is thick with accents— buyers from Italy, France, England, Scandinavia, agents for Japan—all part of an impressive fur industry export market that reached $62.5 million in the first half of 1980, up 25 per cent over the previous year.

In a far upstairs corner of the OTA warehouse, trapper Chuck Laperriere of Temagami, Ont., rubs a snuff-stained hand over a two-day growth, shakes his head and laughs. Some of the Italian dealers have recognized him as a trapper and have sought out his opinion on probable prices, which he has given with delight and great detail, purposely bumping his true feelings $10 a pelt. “May as well stick it to them,” he says. They came upon him while he was at the raccoon rack, searching for a pelt he found on the side of the road. Last year he sold a similar road kill to them for $114.

If there is a business oasis to be found in Canada it may well be Montreal’s Mayor Street, a tiny spit of dull buildings where 85 per cent of Canada’s $300million-a-year wholesale fur garment industry is conducted. Here, Irving Camlot, president of the Canadian Fur Fashion Council, acknowledges that business has been growing “10 to 15 to 20 per cent a year for seven exceptional years.” And it is the same story everywhere. In the Northwest Territories in 1969, a cross fox pelt brought $11.78, but 10 years later was worth $149.96. In Thompson, Man., in 1979—considered the peak of the long-hair fur craze—a single lynx was auctioned for $1,130. Once called “the most inconsiderable of all trades” by the Earl of Hardwicke in a 1762 letter to the Duke of Newcastle, trapping alone is now a $100-million-ayear industry.

It is hard to believe that less than a decade ago trapping was being wistfully described as a dying way of life for natives and antisocial old men who lived above the frost line but below the poverty line. It may be, as Seabrook calls it, “the oldest profession in Canada,” but, unlike prostitution, trapping today is not even the same act it once was. No one needs to haul frozen carcasses into his camp bedding at night, using body heat to thaw the animals so they could be skinned in the morning and therefore lighter to pack. The snowmobile and the price of fur have changed all that. A trapper who goes full out, like Ed Bauman, a 35-year-old who works a line near Whitehorse, can do very well indeed. “I’m going to capture about 150 to 200 lynx this year,” he says. “I should make from $60,000 to $80,000 for five months’ work. Last year I made about $48,000.” Further south, Manitoba trapper Lawrence King will make only $5,000 from the mink, fox and muskrat he captures around Oak Point, but it is still good pay for three months’ work.

A growing number of trappers, like Lehmann and Seabrook, run their trapline as a hobby, a couple thousand extra dollars a year to tag onto Lehmann’s radio advertising sales job and Seabrook’s work as a mechanical superintendent for the regional government. “I take my vacations to go out trapping,” says Gilles Boisjoli of St. Félix de Valois, a tiny village some 70 km northeast of Montreal. “It’s a sport, that’s all. I like it and I make good money.”

People like this have caused the number of trappers to more than quadruple

in the past decade, rising to 110,000 today. Licence sales are booming wherever there is room for more traplines. And where there isn’t, such as in Alberta, anyone hoping for a licence “is going to have to put their name on a list and wait, for years probably,” says Pam Colistro of the provincial government’s fish and wildlife division.

The boom is always explained by observers as simple economics, but rarely so by actual trappers. “It’s the best life there is,” says Oscar Beatty, who has been trapping northeastern Saskatchewan for 40 years. “There are lots of frustrated people who go into the bush and come out better for it. It’s sort of like the old-style cowboy life and it makes a person stop and think. I know lots who really need it. They get into the bush and settle their minds for a while.”

“There ain’t nothin’ to compare with it,” says outspoken American trapper Dorothy Gooch. “There’s makin’ love. And fishin’. And gettin’ high on somethin’. And trappin’—well, trappin’ kind of stands alone, I’d say.”

If it does stand alone, however, it has somehow managed to cast several long shadows.


Montreal Secretary

In the four seconds since this paragraph began, two wild animals will have died in traps in Canada; by tomorrow, 17,000; a year from now, at least three million, probably many more. Those are shock numbers, courtesy of Vancouver’s Association for the Protection of FurBearing Animals. They do not describe a pretty world, but for God’s little creatures this is not a pretty world: on the streets of Nairobi, $75 will buy a muchneeded zebra skin to cover the phone book; in Taiwan, they pluck out butterfly wings and embed them in clear plastic toilet seats.

And yet, though conservationists fret over Far East butterflies and the Grevy’s zebra, the fur-bearing animal population of Canada is in no such danger of extinction. According to a 1977 report by the department of industry, trade and commerce, the more than two million muskrat trapped each year means this animal is “grossly underharvested.” Similarly, the more than 300,000 beaver taken is only half the potential and wolf, fox, bear, raccoon, ermine and mink are all “underharvested.” “We have more fur-bearing animals today than we had when the white man arrived,” claims Lloyd Cook, founding president of the Canadian Trappers’ Federation, and though there was no animal census taken prior to 1670, when the first fur trading company was formed, the experts seem to agree with him.

pers harvest the surplus that would perish anyway.” “All I’m doing is harvesting my crop,” says the Yukon’s Ed Bauman. “I handle my trapline like a farm. I always make sure I’ve got enough seed for next year. I never disrupt an entire area. If I go into an area and see eight or 10 lynx tracks, I’ll take four or five and leave the rest for seed.” There are as many arguments as animals—an overpopulation of beaver can lead to an outbreak of tularemia, a deadly disease that can wipe out all aquatic life—but they lose focus when held up to the violent death of attractive animals, particularly the 170,000 harp seals that will be clubbed to death off the coast of Newfoundland next month. It is this type of death that moves the likes of Mary Tyler Moore to tears and turns Brigitte Bardot off her fellow man. “It’s a disgrace to people who consider themselves civilized,” says Aida Flemming of the Kindness Club, a Fredericton-based animal protection group.

“People act on emotion rather than logic,” says Ted Field, a 15-year trapper from Edson, Alta. “They’ve no idea what is taking place in the trapping industry. They’re mostly urban people with no background in the bush and they have a Walt Disney-Bambi viewpoint. They think all animals live in harmony out there. Well, that’s not the case. It’s survival of the fittest. Each animal preys on another animal. That’s what trappers do. Every year nature provides a certain number of such species and every year there’s a natural die-off of some of each species. Trap-

Publicity has not been kind. One trapper interviewed in the Northwest Territories refused to allow his name to be used for fear of hate mail. The manager of Edmonton Fur Auction Sales has a policy of not speaking to the press. Ken Lehmann, the Ottawa trapper, has given up mentioning his interests at parties; it has a tendency to sour the conversation. “We just do things quietly here,” says publicity-shy Duane Byers, the auctioneer at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s huge Montreal fur sales centre. “The people opposed are just so vocal.”

But Alec Shieff doesn’t worry. He’s manager of the Ontario Trappers’ Association’s (OTA) North Bay sales operation, and he sits confidently in his office wearing a mink bow tie, facing a mounted lynx head and with a southern Alberta coyote coat hanging to his left. He doesn’t mind the controversy at all. “We deal with it straight on,” he claims. And Roger Betz, the OTA spokesman sitting beside him, agrees: “They’re not harming us at all. The more they bring us into publicity, the more fur we sell.” He may be right. “December was fantastic!” gushes Jeff Nelson, the fur salon manager of Creed’s, an exclusive Toronto furrier where it is possible to spend up to $50,000 for a Russian sable to beat this winter’s cold without having to get on a plane. Creed’s, like so many other furriers, experienced “a tremendous leap in sales” this Christmas, more than doubling last year’s figures. In Churchill, Man., the Arctic Trading Company, a mail-order fur trading post founded two years ago by Keith Rawlings with a $500 sewing machine and a dream of “re-establishing traditional trade in Canada,” expects to reach $1 million in sales this year.

That the fur business is so healthy has less to do with Canada than it does with Japan and Europe, Italy in particular. The first reason is economics. The fashion critic for France’s Le Figaro magazine recently claimed that every German chambermaid has at least one fur, upper-class women three or four. The second all-important reason is, of course, fashion. Fur has been bornagain as fashion trend setters dye it, shave it, even mix it to the point where two years ago, at the Milan prêt-àporter fur shows, Rome’s House of Fendi introduced a short jacket called “Noah’s Ark”—an art deco collage of squirrel, mole, baby hare and Mongolian lamb. Yves Saint Laurent has a fur label now and a buyer for France’s famous designer house, Dior, has taken to going to fur auctions incognito—“because as soon as they hear the name Dior, the price goes up.”

“Women wear fur coats out of ignorance,” says Wanda MacMillan, vicepresident of Action Volunteers for Animals, an activist group that has picketed outside of Toronto furrier Alan Cherry’s every Saturday this winter. She, like many other anti-trapping advocates, argues that with today’s synthetics there is no need for animals to die for human warmth.

The furriers love this argument. The Hudson’s Bay Company—which might be said to have a vested interest, considering the $511.6 million it turned over in consignment sales in 1979—even manages to turn the argument around. “The fact is,” says George Whitman, a Winnipeg spokesman for the company, "no fur offered for sale in North America is on the endangered list. Fur is a renewable natural resource and its proper management is something that rests heavily on our shoulders and those of governments. The truth is that fake fur is a non-renewable resource, made from hydrocarbons, so any argument about us depleting nature is nonsense. My case rests.”

In Montreal, the Fur Fashion Council has even gone so far as to prepare an eight-page glossy manual to help retailers deal with the “problem ... of the social context in which they find themselves.” Concerning mink, the manual is most explicit: “In an era when more and more attention is being paid to the quality of life and the environment, it is important to remember that the harvesting of mink pelts in no way contributes to air or water pollution as textile and synthetic fibre mills do. Harvesting of mink uses up minimal quantities of gasoline and electrical energy and consumes no oil or natural gas, as is the case with artificial furs.”

And yet, it seems they are talking to themselves. In Toronto last year, seven angry protesters were arrested for disrupting a benefit fur fashion show. In France, store windows have been broken, Les fourreurs sont des assassins ( furriers are assassins) scribbled on the walls.

Few men could endure to watch for five minutes, an animal struggling in a trap with a crushed and torn limb.


Some animals get off lucky. Kathi Jeffrey’s red setter, Leela, spent two miserable nights in December—one of freezing rain, another of -12° temperatures—unable to return to her Cross Creek, N.B., home because a forepaw was caught in a leg-hold trap that had been set for foxes. Leela survived and, apart from a badly mangled paw, is well, but Jeffrey is hardly consoled. “In this day and age,” she says, “when we have super-thermal clothing and so on, [trapping] is antiquated and irrelevant. It’s ridiculous that this sort of thing should be going on.”

More than anything else, the arguments against trapping have centred around the leg-hold trap, which is cheap, traditional and cruel. “No one can say it isn’t,” says Tracy, N.B., trapper Eugene O’Neill. The famous Canadian Indian, Grey Owl (actually a Brit named Archie Belaney), went from near total economic dependence on trapping to abhorring the act not long after he came upon a mother beaver in one he had set, her crushed foot useless, using her one good forepaw to hold her baby to her breast for nursing.

“The regular trapper, if he knows his business at all,” Grey Owl believed, “sets for beaver only under ice, so the animal is invariably and cleanly drowned, or else escapes the trap uninjured. A dead animal, decently killed was no great matter, but a crippled beast was a crime and the woods were full of them.” Chuck Laperriere once caught a beaver by its only good foot, the other three having fallen to the cruel leg-hold, and with stories like

these it is easy to see how the leg-hold has been the subject of an angry 500,000-name petition in the United States, bans in a number of states and banning legislation (which failed) in both the Canadian House of Commons and America’s Congress.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of the traps set in Canada are leg-hold, a figure that is mercifully dropping as more and more trappers switch to more humane traps such as the Conibear, an instant-kill mechanism that works exceptionally well with aquatic animals but is less successful with land animals such as fox, coyote and wolf because it can be difficult to hide. Argues one N.W.T. trapper: “If they banned the leghold we’d be stuck here in the barrens.”

Some trappers argue that the leghold causes little suffering because the animal either freezes to death or else the trapper soon comes along to dispatch it. But Bob Waldon, a former president of the Manitoba Naturalists Society, calls this “the crapline from the trapline. Ideally, the traps should be

checked every day [only British Columbia has laws requiring this] but some of the part-time odds and sods being encouraged to trap as a manly hobby can’t check more than once a week.”

It is a controversy coated in bad blood, with the arguments running from reasoned to simply defensive. “If those people down south can make their living without inflicting acid rain on us,” says OTA’s Roger Betz, “then we’ll catch fox without a leg-hold trap.”

The fur hearer's greatest danger today is new laws based on emotion rather than biological evidence.


Finally, Canada is about to see some of the evidence. Next month the Federal-Provincial Committee for Humane Trapping will privately deliver its report to the various governments, then will do the same publicly in June at the

annual federal-provincial wildlife conference. It has been a long, long time coming. Since the committee was established in 1974 to placate the growing anti-trapping lobbies, some 20 million Canadian wild animals have died in leghold traps. Originally scheduled to report in 1979, the committee was forced to ask for a two-year extension despite the fact that originally, after only three years, the committee was scheduled to have found more humane traps. “After five years they’d discovered nothing,” claims an unimpressed George Clements, executive director of Vancouver’s Association for the Protection of FurBearing Animals.

/ /^^^^^he whole question of ■ 1 humaneness hadn’t been researched anywhere,” counters Dave Neave of Alberta’s fish and wildlife division, the chairman of the committee. “Does a water animal suffer in a trap underwater? All the research was human and not related to animals. We had to measure killing thresholds before we could evaluate each trap.”

The investigation proved vastly more costly than expected. To begin the search, provinces were asked to contribute, and Newfoundland gave $56 that first year; to end the search, the federal government poured in $250,000 last year, bringing the total cost to more than $1 million. What has been discovered is being kept secret, but sources say the committee will condemn the leghold trap as being intolerably inhumane.

“There was no literature anywhere in the world on humane trapping,” Neave says. “Canada can be proud of being the first to achieve this.” But that does not mean the entire controversy is about to end. The committee’s conclusions on animal death will, to put it mildly, only further outrage the anti-trapping lobbies. While the scientists did uncover signs of struggle with all makes of underwater traps, death appears not to come from drowning—aquatic animals don’t swallow water, as humans dobut from a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood. Called narcosis, it is, by the most cynical definition, death from absolute euphoria. Hence, a trapped animal dies happily.

Much more controversial, however, will be the results of the committee’s testing of nearly 400 different types of traps which conclude that “not a single trap currently on the market will meet the specifications.” Undoubtedly, the report will be quickly followed by what one committee member calls “utter chaos in the patent office.”

The committee will come out in favor of the quick-kill trap, much to the consternation of dog owners. It is a solution that is the preference of those humane groups not naïve enough to think they can put an end to trapping. “We define a humane trap as ‘death as rapidly as possible,’ ” says George Clements. The real tests for many of these groups will come later when the report is made public. “The big question is: ‘Will the provinces take the committee’s recommendations?’ ” says Marietta Lash of the Canadian Association for Humane Trapping, a long-established lobby which, as a gesture of good faith, took its film, They Take Too Long to Die, out of public viewing when the committee was first set up. “If not, we’re going to have to come out of the closet again.”

The more militant Action Volunteers for Animals is already unimpressed, even before the report’s release. “The committee is just a red herring,” says Wanda MacMillan. “While they’re doing that, millions die in traps. The government is non-caring because the animals don’t have votes.”

In the end, as in the beginning, there is left the image of the trapper. Near Barrie, Ont., Lloyd Cook has pelts to skin, but he delays the matter to tickle

Little Joe’s chin in the hope that he can get him to laugh over the telephone. A year-and-a-half ago, when Little Joe was all of four days old, his parents were killed by domestic dogs. Cook took the little fellow in, fed him every two hours, day and night, and when a heart attack put Cook in the hospital, his wife, Helen, took over the feeding until Little Joe was strong enough to survive. Today he has the run of the Cook house, complete with twice-a-day sessions in the bathtub. Not for cleanliness, for Little Joe is nothing if not fastidious, but simply so he can complete his biological functions in the underwater manner to which beavers are accustomed.

Further east, near Carp, it is day’s end, the sun now a thin purple scar along the western edge. Ken Seabrook works in the shed of his rural home, a large, freshlyand well-caught beaver lying in the skinning basket before him. As he sorts his skinning knives, Seabrook talks.

“This animal doesn’t need killing,” he says after a few minutes. “A trapper’s got a responsibility to his animals. If you’re going to kill it, you owe it to the animal to do it properly.”

With files from Anne Beirne, Peter CarlyleGordge, Dale Eisler, David Folster, Kathryn Hazel, Katherine Lawrence, Ann MacGregor, Marci McDonald, Anna Prodanou and Suzanne Zwarun.