Most animals trapped for their fur live in Canada, Russia and the United States. The US claims the largest number of fur trappers, about 150,000 people with a licence. Canada has an estimated 60,000 trappers. These North American trappers are mainly part-timers and few earn a serious income from trapping.
A lot of trappers use steel leghold traps to catch animals. Legholds come in a range of sizes for trapping animals of different dimensions, from the small weasel to the large bear. Legholds are relatively cheap and portable and they all work in much the same way. They have two steel jaws backed by heavy springs which snap shut on a foot or leg when an animal steps onto the release mechanism between the jaws.
You open the leghold trap's jaws (the topmost two elements) by prising them apart and pinning them down against their springs (the two diagonal elements with the coiled springs underneath them). An animal treads on the flat plate (at the trap's centre) which releases the springs and is trapped. You chain the trap to the ground to stop the crippled animal pulling it up and escaping with it.
About 100 countries - excluding the United States, Canada and Russia - have so far banned the use of leghold traps on the grounds that they are inhumane and indiscriminate. Britain (where they are called gin traps) was one of the first countries to outlaw them in the 1950's and the European Union banned steel-jaw leghold traps in 1995.
Humane issues with legholds are:
A History of Fur Trapping
- Leghold traps cause severe injuries. Legholds may clamp shut on any part of an animal that springs them, like an exploring snout. Bones are broken, teeth are fractured (when biting the trap in a frenzy to escape), and animals are known to chew off their trapped limbs to escape.
- Trappers often leave their traps unchecked for long periods, or forget where they are, or abandon them so that trapped animals die slowly.
- Legholds are indiscriminate. Even carefully placed traps for fur-bearers catch unintended animals, including birds, domestic pets and animals of rare species. Trappers unintentionally kill literally millions of non-target animals every year.
- Where legal the use of legholds is poorly if at all regulated. There is no adequate way to police the expanse of wild places.
- Animals slowly die from hypothermia in cold climates, or from loss of blood while waiting for the trapper to return, or slowly drown if trapped in water. (Alternatively trappers club the animals on the head or step on their neck and chest to suffocate them.)
Fur farms produce most pelts nowadays, but historically it was backwoodsman who provided the first pelts by trapping wild animals, especially in Siberia and North America. The international fur trade was the primary incentive for Europeans to explore and colonise these regions.
Sable in Siberia was Russia's greatest asset from the 16th to 18th centuries. Sable and other fur-bearers, like wolf, fox, lynx, otter, beaver and squirrel, were trapped, netted or shot so fast that their populations almost vanished. In the wake of the trappers came traders, farmers, soldiers and government officials to make money, claim the land, pacify the native inhabitants, keep order and collect taxes. The trappers had continually to push eastwards to exploit new fur populations and eventually reached the Pacific Ocean. Then they began trapping and exploiting Alaska (then part of Russia).
Meanwhile around 1600 the English and French were rivals for fur in eastern North America. Although beaver fur hats were fashionable in Europe, beavers were now rare because people trapped and hunted them so much. So the Europeans in North America sent consignments of other furs, as well as beaver, back home. As hunters and trapper used up all the fur animals they moved progressively westwards and, as in Siberia, colonisers moved in after them.
The fur trade was responsible for devastating native peoples and the sable, beaver and many other species almost went extinct. In the mid-20th century trappers turned to the cats and brought many cat species close to the brink of extinction. Before conservationists managed to abate the trapping, hundreds of thousands of cheetahs, leopards, jaguars, ocelots, geoffroys and other cats suffered and died.
Farmed fur dominates the fur trade today. Farmed fur is a significant industry in several countries, contributing 85 percent of pelts to the fur trade and trapping contributes the rest.
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