My high school days in the depths of winter had a predictable routine. From December through the end of February, I would be up well before dawn for a hearty breakfast with my dad, who always arose at 5:15 a.m. Then, I'd bundle up in long johns, two or three outer layers of clothing, and set out, flashlight and tow sack in hand, to handle a daily chore -- running a trap line.
It was hard, even bitter work, especially when pre-dawn temperatures were in the teens and given that most of my traps were water sets for muskrats and mink.
I was anything but a masterful trapper, but on a daily basis my line of 25 or 30 sets would usually yield a muskrat or two. Far less frequently there would be a mink, and of course 'coons and 'possums were caught on a fairly regular basis. Part of the process was re-baiting traps, periodically changing sets or resetting those which were sprung without catching an animal.
Afternoons would be devoted to skinning my catch, scraping the hides, and stretching them on homemade boards to dry and cure. It was hard work, but I enjoyed every moment of it and learned a great deal about the natural world in the process. The fur market at the time was one which paid quite well. A prime muskrat pelt might bring three dollars or a bit more, while mink hides fetched five times that amount. As Grandpa Joe would have said, for the time that was "significant cash money," and it provided the wherewithal for things like ammunition, more traps, or outdoor gear such as a cherished pocket knife.
It has been the better part of five decades since I set a trap or ran a line, although I did accompany longtime hunting buddy and friend Roy Turner a few times back in the 1980s when he was an active trapper. Yet a phone call earlier this week from a reader who is also an avid trapper, Terry Mitchell, took me straight back to those trapping days.
"Each year," he said, "I catch six or eight dogs in my traps." Mitchell quickly added that he released the dogs unharmed, even as he noted that not all trappers did so, especially if the dogs didn't have collars.
Laws across almost every county in South Carolina require some kind of supervision and control of dogs (and cats), and pet owners who give them free range are violating those laws as well as putting their pets in danger. Such conduct is indefensible.
Free-ranging dogs and cats, whether feral or roaming pets, are a major problem. A couple of years back an animal control officer with York County told me, after I had had significant trouble with cats and dogs and had called for help, that almost no one realized just how bad the situation was. This came after he had come to pick up either a dog or cat caught in traps he had set for three consecutive days.
Dogs run deer and can wreak havoc with game populations in general, especially in the nesting and mating seasons of spring and summer. If anything, cats are worse. They are highly skilled predators which kill songbirds and small game in wanton fashion.
The situation of pets on the loose is a shameful one, and any pet owner who fails to control their animals does the pets, wildlife, and their neighbors a singular disservice. As I am writing this a neighbor's cat is lurking at our bird feeder, and I can almost guarantee that if I was able to identify the owner and complain to them they would be irritated with me rather than willing to acknowledge their failure to do the right thing. Yet letting the animal roam violates the law, and should it wander far enough and get caught in a trapper's set, it would be tragic.
Mitchell is right and compassionate when he says he doesn't want that kind of thing to happen, and the answer is a simple one. Dog and cat owners need to look after their pets properly, and such care includes keeping them penned or otherwise under control on their property. Letting them venture where they wish is irresponsible, and is something no thinking, caring person would do. There are just too many things which can go wrong -- for the pet, for wildlife, and even on occasion for humans. If you own pets, look after them.
Another deer season has come and gone, so it's time to clean and put away the high-power rifles and turn to small game, fishing, or thoughts of the turkey season to come. With that inn mind, get out for a good, old-fashioned mixed bag hunt for squirrels, rabbits, and the like, or maybe head to a preserve for some enjoyable dog work and quail hunting.