Eugene Weekly : News : 12.22.11

Lethal Hazard

A Wildlife Services trap set for nutria kills a pet dog

Maggie, before she was killed by a lethal conibear trap

Maggie was only 7 years old on August 27, the morning she died just a few feet from her fenced-in back yard. It was an unusually warm day, which made the border collie’s outdoor visit that much more inviting; the scents that much stronger. For reasons unknown, the backyard gate was open that morning. Within minutes of stepping outside, Maggie, who loved to swim and camp with the family and play fetch with Squeaks the kitten, would have her neck broken and windpipe crushed.

Denise McCurtain, Maggie’s guardian, heard frantic knocking at her door. A neighbor asked if the family had a black and white dog. She said she’d seen one by the water but it wasn’t moving. The dog was Maggie. She was immobile because her head was caught in the vice grip of a Conibear “instant-kill” trap set by Wildlife Services, a federal government (USDA) department. Maggie was still breathing, her eyes flashing in fear and pain from the more than 90 pounds of pressure that slammed the trap’s jaws shut around her neck when she stuck her nose in to sniff the bait. No one knew how to get the trap off. There were no instructions on the device, no numbers to call. After minutes that felt like hours, Maggie’s family and neighbors located pliers and screwdrivers and were able to move the trap’s springs enough to get her head out. But it was too late. Maggie lapsed into shock and died. 

The three McCurtain children — Meg (12), Brandon (14), and Zachary (9) — were still asleep when she died. Covered in mud and dirt, with cut and bruised feet from running barefoot to Maggie’s side, their mother, McCurtain was faced with the horrible question: How do you wake your children and tell them their best friend and faithful companion is dead? 

The deadly trap was set just 45 feet from the McCurtain’s back yard, a gated community in Gresham. The trap, located in an area where children play, feed ducks, look for frogs and retrieve escaped soccer balls, was set to kill nutria, aquatic rodents considered pests. A homeowners’ association email notified neighbors that traps would be placed along the lake, but included no information as to the type used, nor any warning of danger they posed to pets or people, and no information on how to remove/open them. The result: a beloved pet struggling and dying in agony; her family and neighbors traumatized and hysterical, trying desperately to help. 

McCurtain kept a detailed record of what she was told and by whom. She took photographs of the yard and of the traps and called the Oregon State Police. A state trooper came to the McCurtain’s home and took a statement. McCurtain wasn’t happy with the response. When she asked why such dangerous traps were used in the first place, she was told that the government-paid Wildlife Services trapper was impatient and wanted to speed up the process. While she had the department’s sympathies, she was told that the trapper had done nothing criminal (neglectful maybe), that there was nothing the authorities could do. The empathetic trooper suggested they contact an attorney.

The McCurtains learned they had few legal options. Those who chose to file a federal torte claim for compensation are limited to the value of property lost, including pets (pets are considered property, not persons). The amount of the claim for most pets is small and a person could spend thousands of dollars trying to get compensation. The emotional loss is impossible to measure. Furthermore, fear of retaliation from Wildlife Services trappers is real. In many cases, people simply give up because constantly revisiting the trauma of the loss of their beloved pet is too intense and because the specter and expense of taking on the federal government is too frightening. But the McCurtains, assisted by the locally based national organization Predator Defense, are fighting to bring attention to and end this practice and to shine a light on the secretive activities of Wildlife Services. Assisted by Predator Defense, a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) request was filed on their behalf. Thus far, the McCurtains have not heard so much as an expression of sympathy from the homeowners’ association or from Wildlife Services.

Wildlife Services spends approximately $126 million a year killing wildlife. In addition to known victims, many other animals, including pets and endangered species — even people — have stepped in to the traps or been poisoned. According to Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, “In addition to the known victims, thousands of pets presumed missing each year are likely killed by Wildlife Services’ traps and poisons.” Traps are used to capture and instantly kill species such as badger, beaver, bobcat, coyote, fisher, lynx, nutria, otter and raccoon, but they are indiscriminate.  According to the manufacturer’s website, Oneidavictor, these traps “should NOT, however, be used where non-target animals are at risk for capture” (original text in bold) because they are strong enough to maim, injure and kill a child.

Oregon’s trapping regulations are liberal, especially for traps set for unprotected mammals such as nutria. According to the State of Oregon’s Furbearer Trapping and Hunting Regulations (July 1, 2010- June 30, 2012): … All traps and snares, whether set for furbearing or unprotected mammals, must be legibly marked or branded with the owner’s license number that has been assigned by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; except that unmarked traps or snares may be set for unprotected non-game mammals by any person upon land that they lawfully own. It is unlawful for any person to trap for furbearers, predatory animals and/or unprotected mammals using … any instant kill trap having a jaw spread of 9 inches or more in any land set.

In addition to violating state law, Wildlife Services violated its own internal directives: There were no labels on the traps and no warning signs were posted.  The Wildlife Services Directive 2.210 states that “the use of all traps, snares, and other animal capture devices by Wildlife Services employees will comply with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations related to animal capture for managing wildlife damage.” Wildlife Services claims it is careful to observe these laws. This was not true in Maggie’s case. The trap that killed her was 9 inches and was set in the homeowners’ association common area, a clear violation of Oregon’s trapping regulations. 

This kind of tragedy is not limited to Oregon, as people have been injured and pets killed in other states. “How could the government that’s supposed to be protecting us put something so deadly in our neighborhood? Every neighborhood is vulnerable. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere,” said Dennis McCurtain.

Go to for more information on the traps and go to for how to release your dog from a Conibear trap.