Federal Trapper in Northern California
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Mon May 26 14:00:04 EDT 2003
(California Bay Area)
May 25, 2003
License to Kill
The urban trapper
By Douglas Fischer - STAFF WRITER
LAFAYETTE - The beaver wasn't quite stiff when Peter
Lacy dropped the pickup's tailgate and crawled over
the carcass to find his trap.
On its back, with claws curled and yellowed buck teeth
still, this beaver had spent its last morning damming
an irrigation ditch in eastern Contra Costa
County before brushing against the release of Lacy's
The beaver likely never heard the heavy springs go,
slamming cold steel down to snap its backbone. It was
dead. And another problem was gone.
Lacy removes such problems. A trapper with the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program,
he is called daily to help when wildlife runs afoul of
urban and rural dictates. He keeps raccoons out of
attics, coyotes from
sheep, skunks from setting up dens under decks.
He does this in an area where three out of five voters
in 1998 approved a ban
on his most effective tool - the leg-hold trap.
Understandably, Lacy keeps a low profile. His job
generates no small outcry from what he describes as
``pavement pounders'' - urban and suburban dwellers
who, he says, profess to enjoy the outdoors and
cherish wildlife but remain disconnected to the
realities of both.
``You've got the same people who voted to protect the
mountain lion moving out to the foothills, and all of
a sudden they're calling you up saying, `Hey,
that mountain lion just ate my cat. Come get him.' Or
`Hey, that mountain lion is lying up on my roof and
I'm afraid to go out of my house,' '' he said.
``Well, how much more hypocritical can you get?''
An outdoorsman to the marrow, Lacy knows how to deal
with wildlife. But he finds his most valuable skill on
the job an ability to deal with people.
``Generally speaking, most people cause 90 percent of
their problems,'' he says.
His first weapon, particularly with homeowners, is
pest management: moving dog food indoors, putting a
screen around the bottom of the deck.
Most cases, he says, need little more than a dose of
common sense and behavior change - from the pavement
pounder, not the critter - to solve the problem.
``We're not here to eradicate the wildlife,'' Lacy
likes to say. ``We're here to manage the wildlife.''
But when the targeted animal does end up in his
trap, it never escapes alive.
There is no such thing as relocation in Lacy's world.
Doing so, the trapper says, is tantamount to plucking
a city-slicker from the comfort of his living room and
depositing him in the high Sierra. A relocated
animal doesn't know where to find food or shelter and
usually lands in a territory with a firmly established
population, biologists say.
``It's a slower way of dying than trapping,'' said Ron
Jurek, a wildlife biologist with the California
Department of Fish and Game.
Not surprisingly, some activists in the Bay Area take
a different view. Critics consider the program a
throwback to the days when the only good coyote was
a dead one and government paid a bounty for hides.
Modern ranching has a bevy of non-lethal control
measures available, including guard dogs, llamas, even
better fencing, said Camilla Fox, national campaign
director for the Animal Protection Institute.
``Public dollars are being used, often on public land,
to kill public wildlife,'' she said. ``There is ample
evidence that this kind of control does not
Lacy has no argument with llamas, guard dogs, donkeys,
what-not. They're just not the absolute answer, he
said. ``And neither is trapping.''
``For everything that lives, something dies,'' he
adds. ``We're not out there to eradicate all
coyotes.... We just want to remove the bad guys.''
Lacy, 40, is a stout fellow with broad, calloused
hands and a buzz cut. His uniform, no matter how cold
or how hard the wind blows, is a gray short-sleeved
work shirt with a modest USDA patch on the shoulder -
``it's not U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Service),'' he's
quick to point out.
Fish and Wildlife isn't welcome many places in rural,
conservative San Joaquin Valley.
Lacy was born and raised in Fremont, the second oldest
of eight kids. At Washington High School he started
recreational trapping. He was also the school
farm manager and a member of the Future Farmers of
That's how he came to show the Reserve Champion pig at
the 1983 Alameda County Fair.
After school he headed to California Polytechnic State
University, San Luis Obispo. When his money ran out
three years later he came back to work at what
was then Leslie Salt in Newark.
Once home he picked up trapping again, and when
Alameda County had an opening in its Wildlife Services
Program in 1989, he jumped at it.
For almost 10 years he plucked feral cats out of salt
marsh refuges, fetched skunks from back yards and
blocked raccoons from attics.
He typically got squirted once a year, usually when
called to remove a skunk that had settled under
The trick in approaching skunks is to be calm, quiet,
smooth. ``You don't want abrupt movements. You want
fluid movements,'' he said.
Lacy would assess the homeowner's yard and set the
live trap about 20 or 30 feet from the deck, along a
pathway clearly - at least to him - being used by
The problem came when the homeowner - what Lacy calls
the ``cooperator'' - would consider that location
nonsense and move the trap closer to the deck,
invariably to the deepest, darkest corner just outside
Lacy would arrive to find an irate skunk in his trap,
with only one way to retrieve it: shuffling face-first
on his belly. ``You cannot be in a hurry,'' he
said of his technique. ``You leave the cell phone in
Animals get euthanized with a shot of sodium
pentobarbital administered between the ribs. Death
comes almost immediately, he says.
If Lacy has little patience for pavement pounders who
insist he not kill, he has even less for those who
feed the feral cats that roam the bay's salt
marshes and wetland refuges.
Rapacious predators, the cats eat and harass
endangered shorebirds, such as least terns and
California clapper rails. They don't belong in the
wild, Lacy says.
``I've only got one thing to say to those people who
feed feral cats: If you care about them that much,
trap 'em and take 'em home and take care of them at
your house,'' he said.
Still, in 10 years of trapping at the bay's edge, he
had plenty of his traps vandalized and often found
himself on the defensive end of a media blitz. ``We
didn't go in there like a bunch of yahoos slinging
lead all over the place. We took a pretty good
That's not the only thing stuck in Lacy's craw.
He's still plenty irked that voters in 1998 banned the
leg-hold trap. It's the single-most effective tool for
taking problem coyotes, he said, and without
it, in places where coyotes mingle with the endangered
San Joaquin Kit Fox, he can only resort to calling and
You can't easily call and shoot a coyote.
``If you educate a coyote while you're calling, you're
not likely to lure him in again,.'' he said. Over
lunch, Lacy recites myriad reasons a leg-hold trap is
safe, effective and better than the wire snares he
sets now. The arguments are no use, of course.
California voters deemed the traps cruel. Now he can
only use such traps for what's known as ``health and
human safety'' matters.
And, he's quick to point out, losing a cat to a coyote
``If you're letting your cat free-range out of your
house, he's part of the food chain. End of story,'' he
Today, Lacy works in eastern Contra Costa and western
San Joaquin counties, where he spends his days
tracking coyotes, beaver and muskrat.
Eastern Contra Costa County has only had three
instances where he's needed to pull out the traps in
almost four years, Lacy said. But as more people move
into what was once pasture and row crops, he's certain
the number of human safety instances will rise.
It's just a matter of coyotes switching from fearing
housing developments to associating them with dinner.
Though sometimes the line between normal coyote
behavior and human risk can be tricky to discern.
Three years ago in the Dublin Hills a coyote started
plucking off pets at what the neighborhood considered
an alarming rate.
Lacy and California Department of Fish and Game
biologists were called. Town meetings held. Residents,
saying they feared for their children's lives, called
None was taken. The coyote's behavior wasn't deemed a
threat to humans.
``I would've loved to have taken a poll on how many of
them voted to ban that leg-hold trap that they now
insist - they insist - that I use to get that
coyote,'' Lacy said. ``It's a very hypocritical
population that we're dealing with.''
``Until it affects them, they don't realize what
impact (the ban) has had,'' he added. ``I'm not going
to tell you what doctor to go see for heart surgery,
and I'm not going to tell (the doctor) what tools he
can and cannot use.''
Budget cuts continuously threaten the counties'
abilities to buy into the federal program, which costs
about $61,000 a year and gets split three ways, with
the state paying half and each county a quarter.
It was spared this year only after Contra Costa
County's Mosquito and Vector Control District coughed
up $5,000 and asked Lacy to save raccoon carcasses so
it could assess the rabies situation in the county,
said Vince Guise, Contra Costa County's chief deputy
San Benito County to the southeast lost its to a
budget crunch two years ago. Marin County ended its
participation after the Animal Protection Institute
persuaded county leaders to divert the $50,000 tab to
Alameda County has had a Wildlife Services trapper for
at least 27 years. So far San Joaquin and Contra Costa
counties remain committed. ``It's a small
program, but it's an important one,'' said San Joaquin
County agriculture commissioner Scott Hudson.
Lacy shrugs off the attacks. Without him, he believes,
more wildlife will be slaughtered.
He knows how to track and pick off problem animals. He
sets his equipment carefully, where kids playing by
creeks or dogs running off-leash won't stray
into it. A rancher won't be so discriminating.
``What do you do? You're going to kill everything on
the food chain because your livelihood is on the
line,'' he said. ``(That rancher) is going to wipe
out the whole array of potential problems.''
Or go out of business trying.
Marie Stagno runs a sheep sale every Saturday at the
Stockton Livestock Auction Yard in Stockton. She keeps
losing ranchers - most recently a few months
ago after a long-time rancher near Vacaville sold out.
``She said the coyotes were just too bad over there.
They just couldn't trap them fast enough.''
Martin Emigh understands. He raises 2,000 sheep near
Dixon, losing about 30 lambs and five to 10 ewes every
year to coyotes and wild dogs. ``Right now,
until I sell my lambs, the majority of my time and my
employees' time is spent trying to keep the fences as
tight as possible to keep the predators out,'' he
``We're basically down to having to visually sight
(coyotes) and try to hunt them down.''
For now Lacy does what he can, with whatever tools and
budget voters and county commissioners allow. He
doesn't particularly see his life - a professional
outdoorsman and a trapper at that - in the
ever-congested Bay Area as incongruous.
But he's sampled true outdoors life on hunting trips
to Northern Canada and Alaska. And after a week or so
of no people, no roads, no phone service, no
vandalized traps or anything beyond some ripe
blueberries underfoot and a herd of caribou on the
nearby hill, he finds it tough to come home.
``I enjoy that peace and tranquility that offers....
Here you don't really have to depend on your instincts
or ability to navigate terrain,'' he said as he
chucked his beaver trap back into his truck.
``It's like trapping - you're routing, your looking
for whatever sign on the ground. You're just absorbing
it and you've got to look at it in perspective.
``I'd much rather be out looking for animals than
necessarily have to resolve Mrs. Jones' coyote that
ate her cat.''
Contact Douglas Fischer at <A
HREF="mailto:dfischer at angnewspapers.com">dfischer at angnewspapers.com</A>
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