The Untold Stories of Fishing, Hunting, and Trapping

Durk Gescheidle
Coalition for Animal Rights Education


In Minnesota, during the spring, fishing enthusiasts take to the lakes and rivers in their boats and to their icehouses in the winter. Fishing is a popular year-round activity, but it is not without controversy.

Fishing advocates point to “catch-and-release” as responsible fishing and as a way to conserve fish populations. After a fish is caught and released it may be hooked again and again, causing it more injuries and pain. Trout Unlimited’s Charles Gauvin admits that it’s possible to see fish that are battered and with bruised lips from being caught many times. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mike Buntjet, “I’ve seen fish with their maxillaries (lips) torn off, eyes missing and with flies and hooks stuck all over them.”

Fishing advocates rationalize their actions by asserting that fish, being lower life forms, don’t feel pain. Dr. Donald Broom, animal welfare advisor to the British government, states, “The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and animals.” Reduced to its basic elements, fishing involves impaling an animal on a hook, throwing it in the water where it will drown or be eaten by a bigger animal. The bigger animal is then pulled out of the water, its entire weight suspended from its mouth, where it is then clubbed, killed by knife, or allowed to suffocate. If the fish is fortunate, it may be released but is not assured of survival.

Even if the fish appear to survive their ordeal and are released, the odds are against them surviving. Lactic acid builds in fish’s bodies as they try to escape. This causes their muscle cells to start decomposing from lack of oxygen. As a result, their chances of surviving are greatly decreased. A Canadian study found that fish exposed to the air for 60 seconds or more had a 72% mortality rate. Water provides fish with oxygen and helps to dissipate the high levels of lactic acid caused by struggling at the end of a hook. Other factors affect mortality as well. Cuts from fishing line, wounds from hooks and boat-side injuries all decrease a fish’s chances for survival. Fish that bite bait often swallow the hook, resulting in internal injuries. In addition, the ingested hook may become encysted, making the fish more susceptible to deadly viral infections. Outdoors columnist Paul Vang, notes that “Releasing a mortally wounded fish isn’t any different than shooting an elk and not recovering it.”

Fishing is also dangerous for other wildlife as well. Every year anglers leave behind a trail of victims that includes birds, turtles, bats and other animals that suffer debilitating injuries or slowly starve to death after swallowing discarded fish hooks or becoming entangled in fishing line. Wildlife rehabilitators have treated birds poisoned by lead sinkers and otters that can’t digest their food because their intestines are full of plastic lures. The loon, Minnesota’s state bird, is especially susceptible to lead poisoning from ingesting sinkers. Waverly Traylor, a wildlife rehabilitator from Virginia Beach, Virginia, points out that “By far the greatest threat to the health and safety of waterfowl is not the hunter nor the polluted water, but actually the fishing tackle carelessly discarded by… fishermen and so-called sportsmen.”

Fishing is not only bad for fish but for people as well. Minnesota has 6000 fishable lakes. Fish from 856 lakes and 51 streams in Minnesota have been tested for contaminants. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), mercury is found in most fish tested from Minnesota lakes.

Fish and shellfish can accumulate extremely high levels of toxins (as much as nine million times that of the water in which they live) such as PCBs, mercury, lead and arsenic. These poisons can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and impaired mental development to cancer and even death. Fish in some lakes and nearly half of the rivers which have been sampled contain PCBs.

Recent reports of toxaphene in lake trout taken from Lake Superior suggest a potential environmental health problem with this insecticide. Though banned in 1990, toxaphene, a mixture of over 670 chemicals, continues to be a problem in certain areas.


In Minnesota and across the country, hunting has become increasingly controversial and has provoked strong reactions on both sides of the debate. A study by Cornell University determined that hunting in this country could end as early as the year 2025. Reasons cited for the demise of hunting were increasing numbers of single-parent families, busy lifestyles and the loss of animal habitat.

Nationwide, approximately 5.5 percent of the population hunts. In Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources, approximately 450,000, or 9 percent of the state’s population hunts. These figures continue to decline each year as older hunters pass away and fewer young people take up arms against the natural world. The DNR is now looking to bolster sagging numbers through programs like Youth Waterfowl Hunting Day and Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW), which teaches women how to hunt and trap.


Despite the inevitable end of hunting, the killing continues year after year. According to the Fund for Animals, during the 1996-1997 hunting and trapping season 3,338,053 animals were killed for sport and profit in Minnesota. Minnesota considers 15 different species of waterfowl and upland birds as “game,” more than any other state. Legislators try regularly to add the mourning dove to this list. The gray wolf, also know as the timber wolf, which was decimated in the past by hunting, trapping and poisoning, has recovered under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Should the wolf ever be de-listed in Minnesota, the legislature will certainly mandate hunting and trapping seasons. The DNR continues to expand the bear-hunting season, citing the “potential” for possible conflicts with humans. Shooting a bear over bait, although legal in Minnesota, is akin to shooting a parked car. The DNR actively manages and manipulates wildlife populations for the benefit of hunters. Recently, Chinese ringneck pheasants were trapped in South Dakota and released in western Minnesota in an effort to replenish a pheasant population decimated by consecutive harsh winters. To promote low-level browse that is favored by whitetail deer, the DNR allows clear-cutting of forests so that hunters will have ample opportunities to make a kill. Predators of waterfowl and upland birds and their eggs are routinely seen as competition for hunters and are destroyed so that hunters can kill the birds themselves. Minnesota deer hunters see wolves and other predators as a threat to their ability to kill deer in that state. Wolf expert L. David Mech of the International Wolf Center, tells us that the number of deer killed by wolves each year is “insignificant.” In Minnesota, the fox, raccoon and coyote are considered “vermin” and are “unprotected,” which means they can be killed year-round.

The DNR also promotes hunting as a means to control wildlife populations. Prior to the arrival of the first Europeans on the North American continent, the populations naturally regulated themselves. Unfortunately, the DNR actively promotes deer population “management” by allowing bucks to be killed during the season. Fewer bucks does not mean fewer deer. One buck can impregnate several does. If population control were the primary purpose for conducting deer hunts, hunters would only be permitted to kill does. This is not the case, however, because hunters demand they be allowed to kill bucks for their antlers.

When a hunter kills a big, healthy buck he or she is violating natural selection, sometimes referred to as “the survival of the fittest.” Natural predators like wolves kill the aged, weak and sickly animals, ultimately strengthening the overall population. The hunter does just the opposite, killing a healthy “trophy” animal that natural selection would have favored with survival so that it could pass on its superior genes. Studies conducted in Pennsylvania have shown that deer have become physically smaller as a result of hunting over the past decades. Author Joy Williams stated it best in her article “The Killing Game”: “The mass murder and manipulation of wild animals is just another business. Hunters are a tiny minority, and it’s crucial to them that the millions of people who don’t hunt not be awakened from their long sleep and become anti-hunting.”


Trapping remains a major source of controversy in Minnesota and the country at large. The number of trappers, like hunters, continues to decline in Minnesota and elsewhere. To date, there are approximately 5,000 registered trappers in Minnesota, none of whom, according to a former president of the Minnesota Trappers Association, work full-time as trappers. Trapping, for them, is a hobby like golf or bowling.

The primary tool of the trapper is the steeljaw leghold trap. Invented in 1823, this archaic device remains virtually unchanged to this day. Leghold trap manufacturers have attempted to make traps more acceptable by adding thin rubber “padding”” which, in actuality, does little to alleviate the severe pain caused by the trap snapping shut. In order for a trap to be pain-free, it would require so much padding that the animal would be able to easily free itself. Snares are also legal in Minnesota. Essentially wire loops that slowly strangle their victims, snares are used by trappers to catch beavers and other furbearers. The Conibear trap, also known as a body-gripping trap, was invented by Frank Conibear in 1958 as his version of a more humane trap. Comprised of two square steel loops that pivot in the middle, the Conibear trap uses one or two springs, depending on the size of the trap. When the trap is set, the squares sit at right angles to each other and an antenna-like trigger at the top is ready to allow the trap to collapse with great force onto its victim. The animal’s body can be severly contorted by the trap, resulting in unimaginable agony until the trapper ends its suffering. Leghold and Conibear traps are available at Fleet Farm and rural hardware stores in Minnesota.

Trappers argue that trapping is necessary to control diseases like rabies. But trappers tend to avoid animals like bats and skunks, which are more likely to carry rabies. Instead, they focus on catching those animals whose fur pelts have a high economic value. In 1973 the National Academy of Sciences subcommittee on rabies concluded, “Persistent trapping or poisoning campaigns as a means to rabies control should be abolished. There is no evidence that these costly and politically attractive programs reduce either wildlife reservoirs or rabies incidence.” Researchers have determined that trapping actually increases the spread of rabies by removing older naturally immune animals and by opening up habitat. This encourages larger litters in a disease-stricken area.

Even endangered species are not completely safe from being trapped. In March 1997, a U.S. District judge found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had “consistently ignored the analysis of its expert biologists” in 1994 when the biologists listed the Canada lynx under the Endangered Species Act. The biologists determined that “human activity results in the greatest mortality of lynx, principally through trapping” and that “86 percent of lynx mortalities was caused by trapping.” The Minnesota DNR publicly threatened to sue the USFWS if the lynx is listed, since this would essentially mean an end to bobcat trapping in Minnesota.

It is not uncommon that, once trapped, an animal will chew its own leg off to escape. Trappers call this “wring off” and many leghold traps are fitted with a wire loop to prevent a trapped animal from reaching its leg. Since they are essentially land mines for animals, non-target animals are frequently caught in these traps. Dick Randall, a former government-employed trapper, testified before Congress in 1976 that for every “target” animal trapped, at least two “non-target” (also called “trash” by trappers) animals are trapped. Several years ago a local minister was unable to remove a Conibear trap from his dog’s head and the animal died in his arms. When he went public with his story, trappers responded by saying, among other thing, that his dog deserved to die if he couldn’t remove the trap. In Minnesota, ditches and other public rights-of way are fair game for setting traps.

Companion animals are not the only creatures unintentionally caught in traps. An eight-year study in Minnesota (“Injuries to birds of prey caught in leghold traps,” published in the International Journal of the Study of Animal Problems), found 32 bald eagles “inadvertently” trapped in leghold traps set to catch other species. Most of the raptors died from the severe injuries caused by the leghold traps. Since the study was conducted, that number has risen to, on average, a dozen eagles and other raptors found caught in leghold traps per year. A rehabilitator at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota stated that raptors are brought in “all the time” with leghold trap-related injuries. The steeljaw leghold trap has been outlawed in 88 countries as well as Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and New Jersey. In Minnesota, the carnage continues as the tide slowly turns.

What You Can Do

* Help keep rivers, lakes and other open space safe for animals by removing fishing line and other tackle.

* If you know any anglers, show them this information. Many fisherman believe they are engaging in a benign activity and don’t realize how deadly their pastime can be for wildlife or themselves.

* Ask for a ban on fishing in national parks. Write to: Secretary Gail Norton, Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20240.

* Let people know that you believe that killing animals for fun is wrong. Through your conversations, you can help influence public opinion and the actions of others in a positive way.

* Write letters to the editors of local papers every year at the beginning of the hunting season.

* Join a local animal rights group.

* Write letters to your federal and state senators and representatives.

* Do not contact the DNR or your local animal control agency. Their first action is to kill the wildlife you are reporting. Instead, contact any of the organizations listed at the end of this article.

* Act on your compassion. Don’t buy or wear clothing made of fur, lined with fur, or trimmed with fur.

* Make sure that the faux fur trim on your new coat is fake. When animal fur is sheared or dyed, it can appear to be synthetic.

* Share information with your friends and co-workers.

* Don’t shop at stores, such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Marshall Field’s, that sell fur items or items trimmed with fur. Tell the store manager and the company president that you will not shop there if they continue to sell fur.

* If you have old fur, donate it to a wildlife rehabilitator. Wildlife rehabilitators use fur to comfort orphaned and injured animals.

* Take part in Fur Free Friday, a national day of protest against the cruel fur trade that is always held on the day after Thanksgiving.

See Also: Arts: Eco-Sports Arts: Wildlife Rehabilitation

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