Trapping? Pain? That’s a no-brainer

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In his recent article in the Daily Inter Lake (March 8, 2012), Warren Illi, posed the question “How much do animals suffer?”

In that spirit, I ask you Mr. Illi: How much do you suffer when you get your hand accidentally slammed in a car door? And, how do I know how much you suffer? After all, just pointing out that we are both humans and therefore I should know how much it hurts, just doesn’t cut it. Medical research, in recognition of the fact that each individual is different and requires different treatment for disease, is increasingly moving towards individualized medical treatment — tailoring medical treatment to the individual with considerations of the individual’s genetics, life history, gender, age and physiological and psychological constitution.

This being said, just because I am different from you, Mr. Illi, does not mean I cannot feel pain. Same applies to other species — just because they may display behavior different from humans when injured, does not mean they do not feel pain.

Illi presented a less than satisfactory analysis in which he relied on questionable anecdotes to support his predetermined point of view of humans being separate from other species. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has termed this fear of sameness (fear of being just an animal), as “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” Accordingly, Illi’s views expressed in his column are more reflective of an attempt to convince himself, as an occasional trapper, that wild animals in general, and trapped animals in particular, don’t suffer much when lingering in his traps or snares — a personal viewpoint that defies science and common sense.

What exactly is pain?

From an evolutionary point of view, the ability to feel pain is essential to survival. Humans with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) cannot survive without extraordinary societal measures for care; likewise, horrific experiments with monkeys, whose sensory nerves serving limbs had been severed, have shown that these animals, not being able to sense pain, severely mutilated themselves — not really a strategy for survival is it?

Pain and pleasure centers, like those found in humans, have been reported in the brains of birds, mammals, and fish; the neural mechanisms responsible for pain behavior are remarkably similar in all vertebrates; perhaps even more dramatically, in these species, which includes humans, the biological feedback mechanisms for controlling pain involve serotonin, endorphins and enkephalins — and here is the kicker: Endorphins have been found in even earthworms! So, “the very existence of endogenous opiates in animals” writes philosopher and veterinary ethicist Bernard Rollin, “is powerful evidence that they feel pain.”

More than 150 years ago, Charles Darwin, after decades of painstakingly (pardon the pun) detailed research of physiological and psychological similarities between humans and nonhuman animals, stated that it is not a matter of kind, but rather a matter of degree. Science has since irrefutably determined that all mammals share the same neurobiological structures to process pain and experience suffering and other emotions, including joy and happiness. After all, humans are animals and not fallen angels thus, it strains credibility to suggest that the experience of pain suddenly emerges at the level of humans.

In this context, why, if other animals do not feel pain, is much of biomedical research to benefit pain relief in humans, devoted to pain research using unfortunate subjects such as mice, guinea pigs, dogs, pigs and cats? Further, why does the Animal Welfare Law require that those animals covered by the act, be given anesthesia to “prevent unnecessary pain and suffering?

Denying pain, suffering and mental states in animals is defying scientific discoveries post the Dark Ages in which Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, in whose view the (human) mind was different from the (human) body, and who had no qualms nailing live dogs on wooden tables and cutting them open to observe the inner workings, while teaching his students who watched in shock, that the desperate and painful cries of those tortured dogs were nothing else than the whining of machines that needed oil.

As an outdoors man, Illi should know that scenarios in which one shows injury, pain, or other symptoms of impairment, including too much loyalty with a comrade in the battlefield, or just in nature, can be deadly. Consider the following: Traditional Bequia whalers exploited the strong bond between mother and her offspring in that they harpooned or killed the calf first, then towed it close to the whaling station so that the mother, who stands by and follows her wounded or dead calf, can be killed nearer to shore.

Science has brought to our attention evidence ranging from chimpanzee homicide, laughing mice and sheep showing empathy, to post-traumatic stress disorder in elephants, who have witnessed the killing of their families by poachers or through culls (mass killing in the name of conservation). Later in life, these elephants show symptoms consistent with those post-traumatic stress symptoms displayed in surviving human teenagers abused and tortured in the process of being forced to become soldiers.

Now, getting back to the issue of suffering of trapped animals: Science tells us that pain and suffering experienced by animals in traps and snares is significant, i.e., scientific studies have shown that it takes beavers up to 19 minutes to drown while struggling violently in their mute attempts to free themselves. Drowning is not recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association as a humane method of euthanasia.

Furthermore, Illi omits mentioning that trapped animals not only experience physiological and psychological trauma, but they are also forced to linger in traps for several days and nights, while enduring extreme temperatures, suffering from hunger and thirst, hypothermia, and being unable to defend themselves from attacking carnivores. Death for trapped animals comes in the form of starvation, freezing or succumbing to injuries, ranging from lacerations, broken bones or crushed inner organs. Trapped animals still alive upon the trapper’s return, are strangled, clubbed or stomped to death or drowned.

Illi’s question regarding suffering of trapped animals has been long answered by science, ethics and common sense. Again, Charles Darwin in his 1863 article, “Trapping Agony,” wrote that “Few men could endure watch for five minutes, an animal struggling in a trap with a crushed and torn limb… it is scarcely possible to exaggerate thus the suffering endured from fear, acute pain, maddened by thirst, and by vain attempts to escape.”

The question that Illi should have pondered is not, “Do animals really suffer, and how much?” but rather, how does Montana’s society justify that trappers torture tens of thousands of wild animals every trapping season?


Anja Heister, of Missoula, is executive director of Footloose Montana, an organization that “promotes trap-free public lands for people, pets and wildlife.”


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