Doug Snyder won't forget the day he loaded a .22 rifle and shot his dog at point-blank range.
He and his two teenage sons were walking along a forest road near their cabin east of Hinckley in late December when Polka Dot, their 9-year-old setter-Lab mix, suddenly howled in distress.
Bolting headlong into the woods, Snyder found his dog 60 yards away with its head and neck caught in a deadly body-gripping trap. "She was standing there, bleeding from the snout," he said.
Frantically, Snyder and his 16-year-old son struggled to free their pet before it suffocated. But two powerful springs held the trap's jaws tightly closed.
"We fought like hell to get it off, and we couldn't," he said. "She was melting away."
Desperate to end Polka Dot's suffering, he sent his son to the cabin for his .22.
"I sat and petted her," said Snyder, 48, of St. Anthony. Then he loaded the gun and shot his dog.
"There was nothing else to do," he said. "It was devastating. She was a great dog. I loved to walk in the woods with her."
Polka Dot is among at least six hunting dogs that have been killed in traps in Minnesota since last fall. That number could be higher because some pet owners don't report the losses and others might never find their dogs, and the Department of Natural Resources doesn't track such cases.
Body-gripping traps such as 220 Conibears -- with 7-inch openings, large enough for most dogs to fit their heads into -- have been around for 50 years. But the recent rash of dog deaths has spurred some hunters to call for stricter regulations, and the DNR will hold public meetings this winter on the topic.
The traps usually are baited with meat, and when an animal pokes its head in to get the bait, the trap springs.
"We're going to work with trapping groups and try to come up with some remedies to minimize the risk," said Dennis Simon, DNR wildlife chief. "Though the number of cases is relatively small, the majority are fatal."
Minnesota Trappers Association president Shawn Johnson of Duluth said relatively few dogs are caught in body-gripping traps each year, considering the number of traps in the woods. As many as 8,000 Minnesotans trap.
"These are very, very rare instances," he said. The lack of snow this winter allowed trappers and hunters easy access to the woods and likely played a contributing role, he said.
But trappers are concerned, Johnson said, adding, "It's not in anyone's interest to have this happen."
Trapper loses dog
John Reynolds, 58, of Merrifield, is a longtime hunter and trapper who was trapping fox on public land near Emily, Minn., in December with his 50-pound springer spaniel, Penni, when his dog disappeared.
He later found her dead in a baited body-gripping trap set by another trapper.
"She meant the world to me," he said.
The trap was legally set, so Reynolds didn't report the incident. But he has established an online petition (see www.startribune.com/a969) to outlaw body-gripping traps on public land. He wants them allowed only underwater (for beavers, muskrats and otters) or 5 feet off the ground, so dogs can't get caught.
"The DNR approves these trap sets knowing they are killing dogs," Reynolds said. "They just don't consider the number of dogs killed significant enough to inconvenience trappers. Something has to change."
Johnson countered that elevated sets may be effective for species such as martens and fishers, but "they are substantially less effective for others, such as raccoons." And bobcats and skunks can't be reliably taken in elevated sets, he said.
Jerry Noska, 62, of Browerville, was hunting ruffed grouse with his 6-year-old English setter, Sue, on public land near Staples the day after Christmas. His dog, a pointer, had an electronic collar that beeps when the dog stops running and locks up on a bird.
"We were about 200 yards from my truck and it started beeping," he said. He got to the dog in moments, and found her in a 220 body-gripping trap set with a baited 5-gallon pail.
"She was dead," Noska said. "It broke her neck." He removed the trap and tried to resuscitate her, but it was fruitless.
"She was a once-in-a-lifetime dog -- a super hunter," he said. "It's sickening."
Noska has trapped, and doesn't oppose it, even now.
"I'm definitely not against trapping; it's one of the best tools to control predators. But this gives trapping a bad name."
Johnson, the Trappers Association president, said dogs caught in Conibears stand a reasonable chance of survival if their owners act quickly. His group pays $4,500 for an ad in the DNR hunting and trapping regulation booklet showing how it's done (see diagram).
But Reynolds said the tips in the booklet "are a cruel joke. They give people false hope."
The traps are designed to kill, he said, and even if a dog owner gets the dog out of the trap, the dog may have sustained life-threatening injuries.
Snyder agreed. "Knowing what I know now, I think I could get the trap off her, but I'm not sure it would have mattered," he said. It appeared his dog had suffered major damage.
Snyder and his family buried Polka Dot at their cabin.
"It's a huge hole in your life," he said.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org