In a June 6 guest column, Paul Fielder, a trappers’ association publicist, berated the executive director of Footloose Montana for being “emotional” (Footloose is working to end recreational trapping on public lands). Fielder is making the claim that empathy has no place in wildlife management decisions.
I found Fielder’s claim a very revealing remark about trapping, for the psychiatric term for people who don’t feel empathy is “psychopath.” Psychopaths don’t feel empathy, compassion, guilt or remorse – making them conscience-less – and as such, they are able to casually destroy even family members, and certainly animals. Yet – and this is crucial – a psychopath’s reasoning ability is completely normal, so the vital piece missing from them is empathy.
Psychopaths are proof that making moral judgments without empathy is dangerous and leads to very ugly results, for if you can’t “feel for” what you can hurt, then you have little hesitation about what you will do.
Because trapping displays “no empathy,” there’s evidence all over the Internet of incredible callousness and brutality toward trapped animals by trappers. In trapping’s horrific attitude toward animal suffering, trapping is akin to cock-fighting and dog-fighting.
Just being trapped injures and terrifies animals, who can then suffer in pain and panic for days. Then the trapper shows up and the “fun” really begins. Many trappers video themselves prancing around just out of reach of the terrified, and now tormented, animal, even having their kids join in the “fun.” Finally, the trapper beats the hapless animal to death, or drowns, or strangles, or stomps on its chest to kill it; nothing quick, since bullets damage the pelt. The whole scene can remind you that psychopaths often claim that “killing puts me in control, makes me feel like God!” And just like in psychopathic killings, this long, drawn-out agony is being inflicted on a being that’s done nothing “wrong.”
Of course, this callousness will extend to the animals trappers catch that they didn’t intend to, which is a constant occurrence, and which includes endangered species. Trappers will even castigate the owners of pets they trap for not having them leashed, when it’s legal to exercise your dog unleashed on public lands. With characteristic lack of empathy, trappers will refuse to move their traps farther away from trails and trailheads, and trappers even intimidate pet owners who’ve messed with their traps while trying to rescue injured or killed pets.
Fielder also claimed that it was only “extreme cases” that give Footloose any traction, but the irony of his claim is that it’s hard to find cases that trappers recognize as extreme on their own. Citing horrific examples as “extreme” is only what they claim once they’ve been exposed. To see behavior perfectly normal for a trapper, but horrific for those who are aware of the casual suffering this trapper inflicts on a raccoon, see the video “Trapping a raccoon,” on Idahoans Against Trapping, iatvoteno.org.
When a trapper, on his own, does come to see something as “extreme,” it may cause him to stop trapping, such as in this letter in the Missoulian last Jan. 5:
“… It’s been 65 years since the morning I found a broad-striped skunk caught by my trap. It had snapped shut on her last good paw. She had been hobbling around on three stumps, all nicely healed if one can describe them so, and her sole forepaw. Animals, you see, will chew or twist off their paws to escape. I had lost many traps by animals who desperately pulled trap stakes to escape. Some I later found dead, some hanging by their entangled traps and chain high up in a tree where they had died. ... I’ve regretted to this day having been so cruel – having tormented and destroyed those animals so long ago. But I can never undo that. Not ever.”
This gentleman’s changing perspective comes from empathy dawning within him, and my question to readers is: What kind of behavior do we as a society want to encourage on our public lands? That which resembles psychopathology, or that resembles empathy?
Bill Clarke lives in Missoula.