Bill Marchel: Tragedy a cautionary tale for hunting dog owners

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2009 - 10:15 PM

On a hunting trip, a Pine River man lost his dog after it got caught in a legal body-gripping trap.

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A body-gripping trap guarded the entrance to a cubby made of balsam fir boughs. Bait is placed in the cubby to lure prey into the trap. Unfortunately, hunting dogs have been lost to these lawfully placed traps.

Photo: � BillMarchel.com,

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PINE RIVER, MINN. — It was shortly after noon when Mike Marvin of Pine River left his truck with shotgun in hand. Eagerly bounding ahead of Marvin was Faith, his 9-month-old yellow Lab. With the ruffed grouse hunting season waning, he hoped the adolescent dog would find and flush a bird or two.

The sky was cloudy and a slight southerly breeze wafted through the aspens as man and dog plied the forest. An inch or two of snow covered the ground. Weatherwise, it was typical for mid-December.

Tragically, though, the day would not end typically.

By midafternoon, Marvin and Faith had flushed four grouse. Now, as Faith explored the various forest scents, the young dog's nose drew her to a fate that would forever change her owner.

Suddenly and to Marvin's horror, he realized Faith had stuck her head into the jaws of a body-gripping trap set most likely in an attempt to capture a bobcat. The trap was firmly locked past the head and across the throat and neck of the 60-pound dog.

"I arrived at Faith's side within 10 seconds," Marvin said. "She stopped pawing the ground and looked at me fully aware."

The trap that gripped Marvin's dog had jaws that spread roughly 7 inches across and were held tightly closed by springs on two sides. Body-gripping traps like this are often referred to as conibear-type traps.

Marvin tried immediately to compress the springs in an attempt to free his dog.

"Using both hands I got the right side spring to within an inch or an inch and a half of being able to lock it," Marvin said.

During his effort to free his suffocating dog, Marvin screamed for help at the top of his lungs. "I knew there was no one within hearing," he said.

It was all over within two or three minutes. Faith was gone.

With the trap still fixed to the throat of his dog, Marvin transported her body home, where he unveiled the horrible news to his family, his voice choked with emotion and hoarse from yelling for help.

Ten days later, Marvin's thumb still aches from attempting to compress the spring on the trap. He is sleeping better at night, but the terrible event remains vivid in his mind.

It appears no laws were broken by the trapper responsible for setting the trap. According to DNR trapping regulations, the trap had a jaw width within the legal limits. The law reads, "A person may not set, place or operate any body-gripping or conibear-type trap with a jaw opening greater than 7 1/2 inches, except as a water set."

"I'm not an anti-trapper," said Marvin, who is an optometrist. "I have a number of patients who trap, and I respect them. No trapper I know wants to catch someone's dog, and they would feel terrible if they did.

"But somehow, hunters with dogs need to know trappers are in the area. If I get another dog, I won't be out hunting when there could be traps set."

Is there a way Marvin's tragic loss could have been avoided?

Trappers and hunters have explored various options. Trapping associations often give seminars on how to quickly and effectively free a dog from a body-gripping trap. That information is also available on the Web; one site is terrierman.com/traprelease.htm. In addition, the Minnesota Trappers Association has, for the past several years, purchased a one-page ad in the Minnesota Hunting and Trapping Regulations showing how to remove a domestic animal from a body-gripping trap. This year the ad is on page 53.

On page 45 of the 2009 Minnesota Hunting and Trapping Regulations Handbook, in a box marked "Important!" and highlighted in orange, the DNR cautions trappers and hunting dog owners of the potential problem.

There are no known statistics on how many hunting dogs die in legally set body-gripping traps. Suffice to say it is a relatively rare occurrence.

That knowledge is of little consolation to Marvin and his family.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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