Yesterday’s action by the California Fish and Game Commission to ban trapping of bobcats in the state is yet another big advance for animal protection. The commission, led by its two newest appointees, grounded its action not on concerns about scarcity, but around the very notion that killing a predator for his or her pelt is just not right. Their bold and welcome action will spare perhaps 1,000 – 1,500 bobcats annually of the terror and pain of being caught in a box trap and then bludgeoned or otherwise killed and skinned and sold to foreign markets for the fur trade. A single bobcat pelt may go for $700, and be sold in Russia or China.
This outcome had special meaning for me, because not long after I joined The HSUS, I led a 1998 ballot initiative with a coalition of groups to ban the use of steel-jawed leghold traps and to restrict the use of other body-gripping traps for recreation or commerce in fur. We won in a commanding fashion, winning by a 16-percentage-point margin in the state and then won a series of court cases after the trappers challenged us. (And two years ago, I worked with my colleague Jennifer Fearing and others at The HSUS and in our movement to ban the use of dogs in hunting bobcats and black bears, as a further way of clamping down on the killing of these beautiful, elusive and inoffensive creatures.)
Those of us who worked on the 1998 ballot initiative never anticipated that trappers would use box traps to kill bobcats and some other species for their fur. We thought we finished off the commercial trappers’ ugly enterprise in California with the ballot measure. So for me, yesterday’s outcome was a long-awaited and a logical follow up, finally shutting down the maneuvering of trappers who showed resourcefulness in sidestepping the original law designed to stop the killing of bobcats for their pelts.
This most recent political movement, culminating in yesterday’s Commission action, to provide these protections for bobcats got its greatest lift from California citizens living around Joshua Tree National Park – people like Tom O’Key, who found a bobcat trap on his property and was appalled by the idea of these animals living safely in the park and then being lured over some invisible line and being killed and skinned for their coats. According to O’Key and others, trappers were lining up right outside of Joshua Tree National Park and conducted their life-draining activities – reminiscent of what Walter Palmer did to Cecil the African lion right outside of Hwange National Park. (Palmer and his guides actually lured the lion out with a dead elephant carcass before shooting him with bow and arrow wounding him, and then delivering a fatal shot hours later.)
O’Key and other citizens worked with Assemblymember Richard Bloom, The HSUS, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups to pass legislation in 2013 to restrict bobcat trapping in the state. Yesterday the California Fish and Game Commission adopted regulations to implement that law, and had two proposals in front of them – one, a limited ban that applied right around national parks and other protected areas, and two, a statewide ban. The HSUS, animal and environmental groups as well as the residents around Joshua Tree all pushed for the statewide ban, and that’s what we got.
One takeaway for me is that the path to animal protection is often not completed with the enactment of a single bill or corporate action. It often takes years, it takes a series of reforms and constant monitoring, and it definitely takes persistence to achieve sound policy outcomes for animals, as I wrote recently in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.
Yesterday, the trappers and the traditional apologists for commercial trapping spilled out their bromides about wildlife management and proper use of resources. But this is all pretense. Neither they nor state officials have any idea about the total number of bobcats living in the state. How do you manage a population when you have no idea how many there are? And what are you managing them to achieve, since they don’t threaten people or farm animals or any commercial interest. They are actually helpful to farmers by mainly subsisting on rats and mice as the primary foods in their diet. And in terms of their presence in Joshua Tree and other parks, they are a lure for visitors, just like Cecil the lion was at Hwange National Park, and bring value to communities just by going about their normal lives.
Earlier this year, Illinois representatives voted down a bobcat-killing bill on the final day of the legislative session. But downstate lawmakers in Illinois created a scene and demanded a re-vote. They made outlandish claims and nine lawmakers switched their votes from “no” to “yes,” allowing the bill to pass by just one vote. The measure may allow the use of packs of dogs to hunt bobcats and the use of inhumane and indiscriminate steel-jawed leghold traps.
That outcome in Illinois was awful, but we are not done fighting there. California again is showing the way, and the new policy there just gives us more motivation to protect bobcats across a wider swath of their range.