Even in a controlled situation, opening a trap isn't easy to do

Posted: Friday, December 04, 2009

I have to admit, after interviewing Jane Faulkner -- the musher who had a sled dog barely survive after being caught in a trap late last month -- I'm downright terrified the same could happen to one of my own dogs. Or, I guess I should say, more scared than usual.

My wife, Colleen, and I have had our share of close calls with traps over the years, especially when running dog teams close to Tustumena Lake, which is the reason we rarely ever go there anymore. We love the spot, but it's not worth the risk.

Like Larry Lewis, wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said, the body-gripper-type traps -- like the Conibear 330 that Faulkner's dog was caught in -- are meant to kill whatever they close on. This is reason enough to avoid areas where these traps are, but in putting together this week's outdoors story, I also got a glimpse of how difficult it would be to extricate and save a dog that did manage to survive the initial bone-crushing slam of the jaws of the trap.

Watching Lewis open the trap with a mock animal in it, he made it look easy, but as a result of Lewis's job, he is well-versed in how these traps operate. I wanted to know how someone who had never operated one of these traps would fair in a similar scenario.

I volunteered to be that someone. While I have read numerous accounts of how to open these traps should one of my dogs ever end up in one, I had never actually attempted to open a real trap.

Lewis, having a small length of cinching rope ready in his pocket, was able to open the set trap and release the mock captured animal in roughly 2 minutes 30 seconds. For my turn, I used the same length of cord, and was able to open the trap in roughly 3 minutes. This sounds good, but there are a few points that are worth mentioning.

First, I was able to open this trap in a completely controlled environment. I was in Lewis's office where my fingers weren't cold like they might be after hours of outdoor recreation. I was also able to get good leverage off of his hard floor; compared to soft, deep snow conditions where I might actually encounter one of these traps in. And I didn't have the stress of hearing my dog screaming in pain.

Second, since the mock animal for this scenario was a hard-plastic gun case, I was able to be slightly less cautious than I would have been had I had a real animal in the trap. I didn't need to wrap a live animal's jaws, or restrain its body from wiggling. Less caution meant less time on the clock.

Also at one point, I actually used the toe of my boot to push down on the trap jaws, so I could get more leverage for cinching the rope on the springs. Has this been a real animal, this action would have further crushed the animal's neck.

Another important point is that I had the rope for cinching the springs ready to go. I didn't have to dig through my sled or backpack to find it, as would be much more likely in a real life situation. This would undoubtedly add more time.

Also, I am relatively in good shape, with strong hands and forearms from all the dog chores that come with being a musher. And it still took me three minutes to compress these springs. I think a weaker or more feeble-handed person might have taken twice this long, if they could have even opened them at all.

So when all these caveats are added up, I would speculate that in a real situation, the time it would take me to open one of these traps might be closer to 8 to 10 minutes. This may not sound like too long, but it's important to remember that a trapped dog could have a constricted airway. Could anyone reading this hang from a noose or hold their breath underwater that long while waiting for help? Not likely.

As such, I think the things I learned from writing this story are that petowners -- regardless of their stance on trapping -- should attend classes such as this weekend's in order to better familiarize themselves with the deadly devices which are all around the peninsula. And, even when you know how to operate a trap, it is best to do everything possible to prevent a pet from ending up in one, because not all dogs may be as lucky as Faulkner's dog was.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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