Something new and provocative came through my Facebook feed last month. The anti-trapping organization, Footloose Montana, posted photos of three trappers, all posing with wolves that they'd killed in Idaho.
It wasn't the pictures of dead animals that startled me; to motivate its membership, Footloose Montana regularly posts grotesque images of suffering animals caught in traps and dying. What shocked me this time was that the group had posted photos in which the trappers' faces were recognizable.
The photos sparked the usual inflamed comments, which then kicked off an emotional debate about trapping. Among the many commenters there were people who represented both sides, but for the most part the feed seemed like a witch hunt against the three trappers, though none of them had done anything illegal. In Idaho, it is legal to trap wolves.
"I would beat (the trapper) down till his tongue is hanging out his mouth then I would take a picture holding his head and smile," said one commenter to Footloose Montana. One photo had shown one of the proud trappers grinning, while behind him a still-living trapped wolf stood on blood-spattered snow. When he posted this photo to trapperman.com, the trapper claimed that someone else had actually shot the wolf before he arrived on the scene. This photo outraged many viewers, and it also gave me pause. I'm used to seeing smiling trophy shots, but I can't ever recall seeing one in which a hunter was posed with a live wolf in pain -- a wolf the hunter in question had not even pursued.
This photo went viral, and Footloose Montana reported receiving a death threat via email. A death threat ought to be a good indication that it's time to tone down the rhetoric. But Footloose Montana responded by reposting the story multiple times, and on April 1, the group posted the full name, work phone number and work email of the trapper posed with the wounded wolf. The group even provided contact information for his supervisors and noted that he was a Forest Service employee. Now, more than one organization is calling for him to be fired, as well as a full investigation into the wolf's death.
Is setting up another individual for harassment really an appropriate response to a death threat? For days, Facebook commenters called this man a "murderer," "the face of Evil," a "knuckledragger," "psychopath" and worse. Footloose Montana asked commenters to refrain from threatening the trapper on its Facebook page, but previous vicious comments remained up until April 4, though some posts that had supported trapping were taken down.
There were a few trends to the nastier comments, such as people saying that they wished the trapper or his children would get caught in a trap, or hoping that the wolves would get revenge and trap a hunter. And no online controversy is complete without the obligatory comparisons to Hitler, serial killers and wife-beaters. A few of the comments were blatantly threatening. "I think I see a bullseye on that guy's forehead...!" On and on, the rage progressed, feeding on itself.
How is permitting the private harassment of law-abiding individuals like this trapper any different than Rush Limbaugh picking on a female law student who dares to confront authority, or anti-abortion picketers slinging vile names at women entering the offices of Planned Parenthood and even threatening the lives of abortion doctors? In many ways, trapping raises issues similar to the controversy over reproductive rights.
One side staunchly believes that the other side's currently legal activity is immoral. The rhetoric is even similar. I visited a pro-life Facebook page and saw the same Hitler comparisons, vile epithets and "at least they'll rot in hell" conclusions tossed around. It's interesting to see animal-rights activists, many of whom I assume lean to the left politically, using the same tactics as fringe radical conservatives.
I am a strong supporter of wolf management, but I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of trapping. I try to see both sides of the issue. At this point, I assume that Footloose Montana will eventually win its battle to ban all trapping on public lands. But I don't believe that exposing and attacking private individuals is an appropriate way to effect change, however sincerely that change is desired. And public opinion should not dictate the private morality of federal employees. Let's not target a few men for their legal activities. Activists can fight this out at the voting booth and in the Legislature and leave law-abiding citizens alone.
Erin Zwiener is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer living in Abiquiu, New Mexico.