WANDERINGS, with Walter Brasch
For release: April, 2008
Murder in an Alaskan Forest
by Walter Brasch
No one—at least no human—knows his name, or even if he had a name.
We don't know where or when he was born. We know nothing about his life.
But we know a lot about his death. A politician/trapper from northeast Pennsylvania went to Alaska and killed him. We know this because the local newspaper opened almost a full page to tell us about the glorious hunt.
The story included two pictures. One three-column picture showed Mighty Trapper, smiling and in heavy cold winter clothing, holding the dead lynx by his back legs, his life cut short by at least 10 years. The other picture showed Mighty and his brother, a biologist with Alaska's Fish and Game Department, each holding a dead lynx. One of the animals appears to be a young female, possibly not even past puberty.
The article tells us that the politician/trapper, who began trapping and killing animals while in elementary school, went to Alaska to "live a lifetime dream of running a trap line in the Alaska interior." He said he hoped his lines would ensnare not only lynx, but wolves and wolverines as well. However, traps are indiscriminate devices that not only capture their intended victim, but also other animals as well, including dogs and cats if they're in the area. He didn't get wolves or wolverine, and only killed one mink. "My first thought," he remembers, "was we should be able to catch dozens every day." Unfortunately for the trapper, the mink traveled beneath the snow and ice.
The average Canadian lynx (Lynx Canadensis), a close relative to the bobcat, weighs 18 to 30 pounds, has acute sight and hearing, has long legs and large furry feet but can't run fast except for short distances, and survives primarily on a diet of snowshoe rabbits. Their only major predator is the human.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the Canadian lynx as "threatened species" in the 48 contiguous states; the Humane Society of the United States is pursuing litigation to change the status to "endangered." The primary habitat of the lynx is the boreal forests of Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, with a presence also in New England, Minnesota, Utah, and Colorado. But, Alaska allows unlimited killing during a three to five month season, depending upon region, beginning about Nov. 1 each year, and Mighty Trapper was there to kill lynx. "The state says to capture as many as you can," he told others after returning to his home.
"Trapping is the greatest sport there is," this politician told the outdoors reporter, and pointed out, "I'm so very proud to be a part of this real American heritage." When not serving as one of three county commissioners, he works every morning for several months a year killing muskrats, raccoons, fox and, reports the newspaper, "other fur bearing animals." He often jokes around—with individuals and in public meetings—that he's a member of PETA. Not the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but People Eating Tasty Animals. It gets a laugh, and lets everyone know what he thinks of animal rights organizations.
As "thrilling" as setting lines and killing lynx may be to some people, it isn't all that difficult. "Because they're curious, not as wary of humans, lynx are one of the easier animals to trap," says Doug Larsen, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Fish and Game Department.
A trap line, which may extend several miles, usually consists of dozens of individual traps. The snare wire trap relies upon an animal walking into a wire noose and being strangled by its own forward motion; a steel jaw trap clamps down on an animal's leg; the conibear trap is a body trap. Mighty Trapper used a few snare traps and a couple of dozen coil spring traps. "Most animals suffer from a few hours to a few days," says Pierre Grzybowski of the Humane Society of the United States. The animals often die from hypothermia, strangulation, shock, or from inability to flee predators. Although several trapper codes of ethics suggest that traps be checked regularly, and several states require trappers to check their lines daily, Alaska has no such requirement. Animals that are still alive, even if only barely at the time trappers return, are killed by being choked, clubbed, or shot in the head. The carcasses are often thrown out as trash, the fur usually sent to auction houses.
In the March 2008 auctions, the two largest fur auction houses sold about 5,000 lynx pelts, each for about $300. The pelts of most other animals sold for under $40 each, many for under $10 each. The house takes a 9–11 percent commission. Although prices were higher this year because of extraordinarily cold weather in northern China and Russia, thus causing fewer animals to be killed, "Only a tiny minority trap full-time and can make money from it," says Grzybowski. The money most trappers receive from auction "barely covers the cost of gasoline and the cost of traps." Most trappers, says Grzybowski, "do it solely for the recreation, and nothing else."
About 40 percent of the 500 bidders at the North American Fur Auctions sale were from China, according to data provided by NAFA, one of the two houses. Most of the other bidders came from Russia, Greece, and Turkey. But, the coats don't stay in those countries; they are designed, sewn, and shipped into the United States and other countries where the rich can parade their affluence.
The fashion industry is what drives the trapping and sale of fur. Faux fur, synthetic fur, looks almost exactly like real fur, is just as warm as real fur—and is significantly cheaper. One or two lynx pelts are necessary for a coat trimmed in fur. Full-length lynx coats, which might be made from as many as 15 pelts, sell for $7,500–$20,000; a few sell for as much as $50,000. Jackets sell for about $5,000. Although most trappers are men, women are the primary buyers of fur-trimmed and full fur coats. "It's a status thing," says Grzybowski, "they want to wear real fur. They want to show off."
A Saks Fifth Avenue full-color catalogue in October 2007 told its customers, "This season, fur takes on so many imaginative shapes—Discover it all at the Saks Fur Salon." One of those shapes at the Salon was an $8,000 woman's jacket "with brightener-added lynx trim," available for a sale price of $5,600. Among other chain stores that sell real fur are Burlington Coat Factory, Dillard's, Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, and Nordstrom. Lynx hats, jackets, and other clothing items regularly appear on amazon.com, eBay, and dozens of on-line stores. However, more than 100 major designers and chain stores—including Calvin Klein, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Lands' End, J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, American Eagle, and Gap—refuse to work with or distribute real fur.
Mighty Trapper says he plans to return to Alaska in two years when both the rabbit and lynx population are expected to be at a 30 year peak. But, the increased population of the lynx and the possibility that the fashion industry may find other animals to exploit will probably lead to lower prices at the March auctions. It may not matter, anyhow. Mighty didn't even sell the pelts. He had two of them tanned, and the other one, the one of the largest lynx, sent to his home, eventually to be stuffed and mounted—a trophy of a murder.
As for the newspaper? If Mighty returns to Alaska, it'll probably run another story and picture of him and an animal he killed. Almost every day during the Christmas season, the newspaper prints several pictures of orange-clad hunters and their deer and black bear. During other times, there's likely to be pictures of hunters and almost every fur-bearing animal in the region, including bobcats and coyotes, neither of which is edible, neither of which threatens humans. The editor's attitude to those readers who complain in this highly religious rural area where boys and girls grow up with guns and legally begin killing animals at the age of 12 is, "If you don't like it, turn the page."
Perhaps some day Americans, including the politician/trapper who claims to be religious, will turn the page on violence and actually follow the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder."
[Walter Brasch's latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available at amazon.com ands other stores. Dr. Brasch is a university professor of journalism, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio commentator, and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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